HAMILTON, BERMUDA -- Jack King is back.

After a five-year detour in a glamorous class of 50-foot day-racers that never left sight of land, the Washington area's top long-distance ocean sailboat racer returned to the grittier offshore game this month with a $1 million boat and an ambitious, global plan.

"Of course, we may go broke at this," laughed King, recently retired baron of the Budweiser wholesale beer trade in Northern Virginia, "but what the hell -- you can't take it with you."

So for the next several years the chain-smoking, garrulous, foghorn-voiced, 61-year-old ex-fighter pilot will head to sea, where for two decades a succession of his ocean racers, all called Merrythought, has competed from Sardinia, Italy, to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Now comes the biggest, fastest Merrythought ever, a refurbished aluminum 62-footer that has finished first, first and third in her initial outings. Last week she passed her big-water test, taking third place in 15-boat Class A in the 700-mile-plus Newport to Bermuda Race.

It was a rough, hard, four-day hammer into headwinds and heavy seas -- just the sort of thing King enjoys, and he had a ball. For others, it was a learning experience. Herewith, then, a first-hand look at Merrythought and the grueling life of a big-time ocean racer.

Crewman Scott Bradford swung from his bunk and surveyed the wreckage as Merrythought shuddered and banged through the Gulf Stream.

Bagged sails littered the cabin floor, where his crewmates lay in dank, sleepy heaps, some still fully dressed. It was 4:45 a.m. After 2 1/2 hours rest, Bradford's eight-man team was on call again, due to relieve eight mates on deck at 5.

It was their third day at sea; they hadn't slept more than three hours at a stretch, nor would they until they hit Bermuda, 1 1/2 days away. No one had bathed; some hadn't yet changed clothes despite the sweaty work. It was rank.

Yet it was also Bradford's 35th birthday and he brightened at the reminder, offering a brief speech: "Let me just say there isn't anyplace I'd rather be right now, guys, or anybody I'd rather be with."

And while everyone laughed, he really wasn't kidding. As rough as it was that dark morning and as appealing as a shower and firm ground might have sounded, Bradford and his mates were extracting from their bruising, self-imposed sea squalor the highest sporting pleasure they knew.

They were ocean racing.

All last week, 1,500-odd bedraggled sailors from more than 140 boats rolled into the picturesque harbor here, refugees from a hostile sea, looking relieved. Said Tim Kerns as Merrythought idled in toward the dock, where black rum and soft beds awaited, "Congratulations, men, we've cheated death again."

Hyperbole? You bet. But then, you weren't on Merrythought Monday night when a finger-thick control cable exploded without warning in a 30-knot gust and the big headsail began flailing back and forth across the deck, whipping around wire lassoes capable of tearing off human heads.

You weren't on War Baby when Jim Leonard went overboard in a squall and bobbed around in Gulf Stream breakers for 15 minutes while his crewmates searched for him; or on Fiddler 100 miles from the finish when the mast crashed down in a fractured heap.

You weren't on 70-foot Starlight Express when Tommy Young, 70, tumbled down the companionway hatch after a misstep and broke five ribs. His mates put him in a bunk where he lay for two days and nights. "He said it hurt so bad he could feel it every time the helmsman changed hands on the wheel," relayed a friend.

Young eventually was hospitalized here and should survive, as should everyone else on this 37th running of the East Coast's oldest, longest and most revered ocean race.

"But frankly," said Fast Eddie Adams, Merrythought's navigator and a grizzled veteran of the offshore game, "it's a wonder more people aren't hurt out here, when you think of the forces involved."

Ah, those unpredictable forces: foam-capped ocean rollers to slam into ("square waves," the racers call them), the Gulf Stream roaring along at five or six knots, spinning off circular, swirling eddies 30 to 40 miles wide, black-cloud line squalls with sheets of rain bearing down from the west, howling winds, steel rigging stretched rock-stiff to bear the loads, sails of space-age Kevlar and Mylar so strong that when the wind pipes up, the mast may break before the sails do.

And no place to hide. "If you fall off out here at night," warned Jerry Shea, mainsheet trimmer on Merrythought, "you're gone."

But all that proved oddly exhilarating last week as Merrythought's 16 crewmates humped 300-pound sails up and down the hatches in the bitter dark, rubbed their rear ends raw on the nonskid decking; clambered up to the pointy end to drag the flailing headsail down; rose from fitful, two-hour slumbers to charge up on deck; and stumbled to the leeward rail to empty their churning guts downwind when they had to, so they wouldn't foul their mates on the high side.

All was overseen by an amused King, who had invited a newsgathering guest for a little ride on his new yacht, then laughed out loud at the guest's suggestion that he could stay out of the way by sitting in back and snapping pictures.

"Ho, ho, ho," boomed King through snowy Santa whiskers. "You'll stand your watch just like the rest of us."

King said there's no room for tourists on a boat like his, which is booked for ever more demanding nautical adventures such as England's Fastnet Race, Australia's Sydney-Hobart, Scandinavia's Ska series and similar high-profile enterprises. Bermuda was the first of many.

Into this high-stakes game he's taking a Frers-designed sloop originally built for Long Island millionaire Bevan Koppel in 1983. Koppel called her Congere, enjoyed modest success, then donated her to the Naval Academy when he opted for a new boat.

King picked her up cheap last year after the Navy let her languish at the docks and sent her to Sturgeon Bay, Wis., for a costly refit at the Palmer-Johnson yard, where his son is a shipwright.

He took delivery this spring and had time to race just twice before the Bermuda jaunt. Both times, including the 200-mile Block Island Race, Merrythought won her class.

So King was upbeat when the 15 biggest boats in the 145-boat Bermuda fleet headed for the starting line in a grey fog off Newport, R.I., June 15, and he thought no less of the big, white yacht four days later when Stevie McLaughlin piloted her across the line in bright sun off St. David's here, fifth to finish and third in class on corrected time.

"Mother Nature did us in," said King, who squirmed with the rest when Merrythought fell into a windless hole 40 miles from the finish and slatted around for four hours while helmsman Jimmy Scott chewed his nails.

Meantime, Robert G. Stone's 70-foot Arcadia roared in from the west on a separate breeze to take big-boat honors.

No matter. "We're still learning the boat," said King. And the crucial question had answered itself. "This thing is fast," said Shea, rubbing his hands. "What's next?"

Mostly, Merrythought showed her mettle when the wind came charging up her nose, as it did almost nonstop for the final 400 miles. Ranging in strength from 10 to 30 knots, the breeze seemed trained through a Bermuda funnel aimed constantly and directly on Merrythought's bow.

But King used an array of electronic navigation gadgetry to find a south-running meander in the Gulf Stream and, for 140 miles, Merrythought plowed south anyway at speeds of up to 12 1/2 knots, borne along by the roaring current, bucking the contrary wind.

The stream, rolling hard against the southerly wind, churned up a bucket of maritime hell that left the crew groaning in the bunks as the yacht leaped and crashed from watery peak to peak.

Groans of misery sounded below, the sounds of offshore sailors sailing on a stormy sea.

But it was sweet music to King's ears.