WASHINGTON CROSSING, N.J. - After taking part in every re-enactment of George Washington's Delaware River crossing since 1976, completing a degree in American military history, and amassing more than 500 books on the Revolution, Ronald Rinaldi III was ready for the role of a lifetime.

But he was stymied yesterday by the river's current.

Rinaldi played Washington in the 55th annual reenactment of the military leader's daring Christmas crossing, which led to a rout of British-led forces in Trenton and is credited with reviving the downtrodden Continental forces.

While Rinaldi and the crews of two other boats waited to cross, they watched as the first boat attempting the short voyage was swept downstream. A rescue craft stationed in the river snared the boat and returned it to the Pennsylvania shore. About 25 reenactors were aboard.

The rowing portion of the event is scrapped if the river is running too fast or it is too windy, but the current apparently caught organizers by surprise. Because the crossing itself is always the final part of the day's events, that was pretty much it for this year's installment, save for some photo opportunities in boats close to shore.

Three boat crews had trained to cross the river this year, and dozens of reenactors were to take part. Usually about 5,000 spectators line the shores to watch the spectacle, in what has become a Christmas tradition for many families.

"It wouldn't be a Christmas Day without going down there," said Rinaldi.

In the Dec. 25, 1776, crossing, about 2,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 18 cannons were ferried across the cold Delaware. The Continental soldiers, many ill-prepared for the cold weather and poorly trained, then marched eight miles downriver to Trenton.

There, they soundly beat the German mercenary soldiers, capturing 1,000, killing 30 and losing only two of their own - both of them frozen to death.

The event was a turning point for the bedraggled Revolutionary forces.

"If they didn't win this battle, that would have been the end of the American Revolution," said Hilary Krueger, director of Pennsylvania's Washington Crossing Historic Park, which hosts the reenactment.

The actual crossing little resembled the painting by Emanuel Leutze, a glorified depiction of the event that hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Leutze's painting shows a daytime crossing. The bulk of the troops were moved at night. A majestic Washington standing at the bow of Leutze's boat was unlikely, considering the temperature.

Rinaldi, 45, of Branchburg, was chosen by a panel of three experts on the crossing and will serve for two years. Prospective Washingtons are judged on their knowledge of the military leader and the crossing, must possess a uniform resembling Washington's, and must be able to recite the first two passages from Thomas Paine's stirring tract calling for independence.

Rinaldi, who works as a Middlesex County crime scene investigator, became interested in Revolutionary War history after taking part in the 1976 crossing when he was 14.

"I remember I was fascinated by the muskets and the rifles and the uniforms that the soldiers had," he said.

Rinaldi volunteered as a guide at the park, worked at Valley Forge National Historical Park, and earned a bachelor's degree in American history from George Washington University and a master's in military history from Duke University.

Over the years, Rinaldi has been joined by his father. His 10-year-old son, Ronald, was to have been in his boat this year as a drummer boy.

"I never thought when I was growing up that I'd be doing this with my son, much less doing Washington," Rinaldi said.