ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 4 -- It should have surprised no one today at the opening of the 21st annual U.S. Sailboat Show when the sky went black and a gullywasher sent buyers and sellers racing for cover.

Everything else has gone wrong in the marine trades lately, from a continuing five-year decline in sailboat sales to the oil crisis to the general economic downturn it's spawning. Now comes President Bush with a proposed 10 percent surtax on luxury boats.

Against that backdrop, splattering great raindrops on the foredeck sound positively benign. Anyway, sailors are optimists; they know all about clouds and their linings.

"With the recession and the Persian Gulf, people are panicking about buying," said optimist Bart Hiltabidle, who was pushing Yamaha outboards. "Our approach is just to treat it like it's not there; stay upbeat."

Easy for him to say. There isn't a Yamaha yet priced over $100,000, the cutoff at which the federal luxury boat tax would kick in. But Bob Pooler of Maine's Bass Harbor Marine, where the inventory starts at six figures, has a slightly darker perspective.

"The tax thing is on everyone's mind," he said, "It's the No. 1 topic of conversation. People just aren't going to put up with it."

"This is a $600,000 boat," said Pooler, gesturing at the glittering, 54-foot Mason sloop he brought here. "They're talking about a 10 percent tax on everything over $100,000. That's an extra $50,000 on a boat like this.

"You might think a buyer at that level is immune," said Pooler, "but the truth is, the last $50,000 is generally what makes or breaks a deal.

"Why us?" he wondered. "Why not pick on an industry that makes money, like aluminum can manufacturers, instead of one that's been struggling for five years?"

Indeed, while the in-the-water show here remains by all accounts the No. 1 exposition of its type in the nation, the one nobody in the trade dares miss, exhibits are down again, with perhaps 50 fewer boats in the water than last year, when there were 50 fewer than the year before.

"Look around," said Hiltabidle, "there's an awful lot of boats lying broadside to the pier," where in the past they were backed in side-by-side and crammed so tight organizers had all they could do to shoehorn them in.

Still, the Annapolis show continues to attract a mob. Even today, so-called "VIP day" when tickets were $20, the floating docks were comfortably chock-a-block with people. Friday through Monday the fee drops to $8, and the cold front that brought today's frog-choker is supposed to give way to brisk, clear autumn weather.

Among this year's attractions is a young man with a familiar name: Teddy Turner Jr., 27, whose media mogul father made sailing history in the 1970s.

Like father, like son. Turner Jr. is here to show off American Challenge, the 80-foot Bruce Farr-designed maxiboat he bought to begin training in for the 1993 Whitbread 'Round the World Race.

Sailboat show hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday-Sunday, 10-6 on Monday. Admission is $8, $4 for children 12 and under. Shuttle buses are available from satellite parking lots; follow the signs to parking from Route 50.