Every two hundred years or so Americans get right exercised about boats. In 1772 Rhode Islanders lured the English frigate Gaspee aground and burned it to the water's edge. Next year ersatz Indians - palefaces in disguise - boarded ships in Boston one chilly night and made a harborful of iced tea. Both groups were protesting taxes.
Now comes the Conch War: the 15 inhabitants of Key West's ''Conch Republic'' vs. the US government's Small Business Administration, population 5,054.
Talk about ''ersatz,'' that's what this ''republic'' is: Its citizens held a mock secession in 1982 when the feds, searching for drugs and illegal immigrants , put roadblocks on the only road that led to it.
The Conch Republic claims SBA is an econometric spoilsport: It wants to foreclose on the flagship of the Republic's Navy - the 45-year-old sailing schooner Western Union. A while back the Conch-ers shelled out money for a down payment on a $350,000 SBA loan to make the boat into a museum. But they've fallen behind in their payments, and every homeowner knows what that leads to.
Like their Rhode Island and Massachusetts forebears, Conch-ers fuss at fiscal overbearance. They stormed a federally owned fort to protest the SBA action, fortified by a togetherness breakfast of ''war cake.'' Their ''admiral'' insisted she was ''not going to give up the ship'' until the SBA agreed to extend the loan.
The SBA may or may not be quaking. But at least it would be hard to burn it to the waterline.