ANNAPOLIS -- Competitiveness has been the missing factor in the rebirth of the majestic J-boats Shamrock V and Endeavour, which square off to race in the Chesapeake Bay today for the first time.

Endeavour, restored to perfection for a whopping $10 million by former Baltimorean Elizabeth Meyer, proved so much faster in initial meetings of the two boats last summer that no one has since given the dowdier Shamrock any chance to win.

So why, when Olympic gold medalist Buddy Melges won the coin toss here Thursday and picked his weapon of choice, did he select Shamrock?

"Endeavour's bottom is dirty," Melges said as his crew egged him on. "We're going to enjoy beating the hell out of Jobson."

That would be Gary Jobson, TV sailing spokesman, widely published expert on yacht racing strategy and Ted Turner's America's Cup tactician. He'll be driving royal blue Endeavour when the starting gun sounds at noon off Thomas Point, shouting orders to his uniformed crew of 30 while Melges does the same on emerald green Shamrock.

Melges reckons he can beat Endeavour because after last year's lopsided results between the two boats, Shamrock was awarded an 18 percent speed handicap. Her course today thus will be shorter, with Endeavour forced to sail to a more distant upwind rounding mark than her rival.

Melges figures once he gets out front, Jobson has to run over him to get the lead, and few serious sailors welcome the task of trying to get past the redoubtable Melges once he's ahead.

So it could be interesting racing. But whether competitive or not, the J boats promise to be the season's major sailing attraction on the Bay. When the two boats met last summer in Newport, R.I., marking the first J racing there or anywhere else in half a century, spectator boats numbered in the thousands -- a bigger crowd than had turned up for any real America's Cup.

Race committee chairman Gaither Scott said no one has any idea how many boats will turn out here. Much depends on the weather. But excitement in the yachting community has been high.

What's so special about these boats?

They are the largest class of racing yachts ever built, symbols of the wild financial excesses of the 1920s and early '30s before the Great Depression.

Sir Thomas Lipton's Shamrock was the first J built and the only one made of wood. She's teak-planked over steel frames, 120 feet overall, with a 155-foot mast and a 1,600-pound, 4,900-square-foot mainsail. "Her mainsail is bigger than my house," marveled Annapolis sailor John Aras, who helped deliver her from Baltimore Thursday and watched worriedly as she and Endeavour eased under the 184.5-foot-high Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Endeavour was built for the 1934 America's Cup by British aeronautical wizard T.O.M. Sopwith. She's 10 feet longer than Shamrock at 130 feet, clad in steel, with a 165-foot mast, a 2,000-pound mainsail and a 12,500-square-foot spinnaker so immense it defies description.

Both boats strike awe in coastal sailors more accustomed to calling 60-footers "big boats." When Shamrock arrived at the Museum of Yachting in Newport in the mid-1980s, donated by the Lipton Tea Co., she instantly became queen of the U.S. yachting fleet.

But Meyer, niece of Katharine Graham, the chairman of the board of the Washington Post, upstaged Shamrock with a five-year, dotingly detailed refit of Endeavour, now widely regarded as the sleekest, handsomest yacht in creation.

Meyer since has spearheaded a drive to get the Js racing in public. The Newport regatta she organized last year was followed by a dispiriting demonstration sail in New York Harbor, where authorities wouldn't let the boats race for fear spectator traffic would turn the port into a circus ring.

This year, things are better organized. Today's regatta will be followed by racing June 27-July 1 in Boston Harbor and Aug. 23-26 in Newport.

Starts at Thomas Point

Depending on wind direction and strength, Endeavour and Shamrock will race two or four upwind-downwind legs today, starting at noon near Thomas Point Lighthouse, which lies in the Chesapeake a few miles south of Annapolis. Eight Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary boats will try to keep spectator craft from interfering.

After the race, the yachts will parade north under the Bay Bridge to Sandy Point State Park, considered the best spot for shore spectating. The Js are expected to return to their berths at the U.S. Naval Academy about 5 p.m.