For years, the Chesapeake Bay boasted good sailboat races and weak parties. Then three students at St. Mary's College dreamed up an 80-mile overnight race from Annapolis to St. Mary's City, followed by an "Animal House" party on campus. Smash hit!

That was 1974, when 47 boats ran in the so-called Governor's Cup Race. By 1978, the fleet was up to 156 boats; in '82, there were 302 entries, and last year, 357 showed up, making it the bay's biggest sailing event by far.

When this year's race begins near dusk on Friday, Aug. 15, nobody knows how many yachts will converge for the start off Annapolis, "but we've already sent out 440 applications," said St. Mary's student Susan Meredith. An even bigger question is how many thousands will turn up for the subsequent all-day public blast that starts Saturday morning.

"It's become our biggest logistical nightmare," said college spokesman Chris Cihlar. "We have no cap on entries, so we wonder what we'll do if 500 boats and 10,000 people show up." Cihlar said graduation is a snap in comparison. "That's four hours on a Saturday morning, and everyone's sober."

By contrast, the outdoor cash bar opens, the Ridge Fire Department starts doling out crab cakes and pizza, and two bands start playing for Governor's Cup celebrants at 10 a.m., and the party continues long into the night.

The highlight is at 5:30 p.m., when a cannon sounds near the replica of Maryland's first State House, signaling the start of an hour's free drinking. At the gun, yachties and friends race across the lawn to tables marked "Rum-and-Tonic," "Scotch-and-Water," "Bourbon," etc., and grab up all they can carry.

So wild are ensuing events that last month's issue of the national sailing magazine Yacht Racing and Cruising named the Governor's Cup one of the 10 best sailing parties in the world, alongside the bash in Newport, R.I., after Australia's victory in the America's Cup, and the regular debauches after the Fort Lauderdale-Key West classic (sponsored by Mount Gay Rum), the Victoria, British Columbia-to-Maui race and the Snow and Satisfaction Regatta at Yale University.

The Governor's Cup even has spawned a little brother, the Eastport Yacht Club's Solomons Island Race, the sixth edition of which ran last weekend, 152 boats making the 55-mile trek down the Bay from Annapolis via Hooper's Island Light.

The thing about these races is that they start near dusk and go all night. It makes for good sailing, the winds being generally steadier and stiffer and the temperatures blissfully cooler than in the daytime. But nobody sleeps, which means the sailors arrive at the destinations totally zonked and are immediately set upon by loved ones and friends who have driven down for the party and will not be denied.

Ever the party animal, I tagged along to Solomons on Rob Mairs' 30-footer, Puffin, last weekend, to taste first-hand the delights of Chesapeake yachting.

Clearly, a highlight was drinking beer at 10 a.m. while paddling around the pool at Zahniser's Marina. There also was a big, striped tent with a red-hot jazz band, which later turned miraculously into a Trinidad-style steel band, if memory serves. I also distinctly remember tickets, which were 50 cents apiece.

It was not hard to tell the sailors from those who drove. The sailors had stubble beards and hooded eyes. "They seem to, like, float," said a woman. And no sailors at all appeared to be participating in the volleyball tournament.

To be honest, for the boat people, the race was better than the party. Much happened in the dark. There was wild thunder and lightning after sunset; a brief night gale that Mairs greeted like an old friend ("Now's when we make our time, boys," he crowed, eyes agleam); a parting of the clouds at midnight to reveal a lopsided moon; at least a half-dozen massive wind shifts; foul tides, and two hours of total, dead, glassy calm just before dawn, with Hooper's Light in sight and the boats scattered like kids' toys, waiting for a breeze.

Along it came, at last, blowing away the morning heat, and we all bounded for the finish.

Party time!

Yacht entries for the Governor's Cup Race must be filed by Aug. 6 to Box 156, St. Mary's City, Md., 20686. Entry fee is $35.

Spectators can watch the boats come in to St. Mary's College during the early morning of Aug. 16 for free, which is a colorful scene. Entry to the subsequent party on campus is $3 for adults, $1 for children under 16, which sounds suspiciously like a bargain.