The oil rig Ocean Victory suddenly appears as a bright yellow blotch on the chopper's radarscope. Distance narrows; the thing takes shape. A two-ace slab, solid geometry etched by stell, a pyramid held aloft by 12 Greco columns, the columns disappearing in ink-blue ocean. An auger, its tip a drill bit, pierces the slab. This is the axle around which everything, everyone revolves here -- for $100,000 a day in expenses.

At stake is the Baltimore Canyon oil field, discovered in the mid-1970s, hailed as a find more promising than Alaska, a solution to America's energy crisis, which has yet to produce for eager consumers a drop of oil or a fume of natural gas. Almost $2 billion has been invested here.

Ocean Victory is also a ship, a self-propelled, semi-submersible, deep-sea exploratory drill rig, to be precise. The hulk's diesel engines, conceived for submarines, have sloshed it twice across the Atlantic, from the North Sea to the Georges Bank off New England to this precise point, 110 miles east southeast of Atlantic Citys casinos. But even as our drill carves through the Baltimore Canyon oil field, all's not well below deck. Young men who manhandle Ocean Victory's drill, Cajuns, Texans and New Englanders, veterans at 24, sullenly agree their rig is a bummer. This is the exception, they say, not the rule, aboard offshore drilling platforms, and reasons relate to rules, food and heavy-handed treatment.

A safe rig? Yes. An ecologically clean rig? Probably. But a happy rig? No sir, and disheveled to boot.

Buffeted by a sea breeze, our helicopter wobbles down to its pad. First impression: NOISE. The ceaseless roar of diesels, the clang of metal striking metal, the groan of cable winding taut around its drum. Second impression: one woman among many men. Handshakes all around. Someone is shouting above the din: "We're at 9,400 feet." Another male voice predicts "a bit of trouble." The woman glowers at my companion, a bearded photographer who unknowingly is breaking a rule.

There are many commandments aboard an offshore drill rig. The commandments have been distilled, embellished, interpreted and, it seems, exagerrated by the rig's owner-operator. And this should be underlined. Rarely do the major oil producers -- Exxon, Texaco, Mobil and the others -- own offshore, mobile drill rigs. Ocean Victory's owner is Ocean Development & Exploration Co. (ODECO), a corporate midget in the world of Big Oil. But hear ODECO's commandments:

Thou shalt not pummel another roughneck. Thou shalt wear steel-tipped boots. Thou shalt not smuggle pot. Thou shalt not possess booze. Thou shalt not wear a beard. Thou shalt not snicker at commanments. If only to emphasize the latter, Ocean Development & Exploration Co., super-subcontractor to Tenneco, Inc., has prominently posted a warning:

"From time to time and without prior announcement, searches by authorized representatives may be made of anyone entering the premises of Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co. . . . When appropriate such items discovered by the compasny may be taken into custody and may be turned over to the law enforcement authorities." Thou shalt not snicker at commandments, as will be seen.

There are 65 souls aboard Ocean Victory, 64 of them men. Like soybean farmers, automobile mechanics and nurses, the crewmen can perform anywhere on oil rigs -- according to their specialties. Casual conversations customarily begin: "Weren't we together in the South China Sea?" Betty Ferguson, the ODECO safety officer who is on-the-job training officer and medical officer, is from the Oil Patch and from an Oil Patch family. Being from the Oil Patch , which is Texas and Louisiana, is a badge of distinciton. So too are the coveralls, properly begrimed, the Bayou makeup, even her stentorian lecture:

"If we encounter hydrogen sulfide, you'll hear a wailing siren. That means don your masks and run toward your [escape] capsule. Grab your walk-around air cylinder and strap it to your waist. Your capsule's number is stenciled to your bunk. Try to positon yourself upwind. Remember two breaths of hydrogen sulfide will paralyze your diaphragm, and then you can't breathe. This gas is so deadly that if your eardrums are perforated they might not let you stay here. What we really want is for you to react to the siren, even if you're asleep. If you've grown a bread, the mask won't seal on your face."

Not all oil workers are as colorful as Betty Ferguson. The personalities, characters and interrelationships are difficult to distinguish, for the same individuals populate not only Ocean Victory but oil rigs from Alaska to the Pescadores Islands.

Given a choice of shaving his proud, bronze, newly grown bread or taking picturs, the photographer retured to the helicopter and, having spent 20 minutes aboard Ocean Victory, departed.

The next day Betty Ferguson rotated home after two weeks aboard the oil rig. Her replacement, male, said the siren was broken. He delivered an identical lecture about beards, hazards and things that go bump.

Those descirbed here might not now be There aboard the rig atop the Baltiomore Canyon, listening to the NOISE, watching the ink-blue water, spotting the dorsals of curious sharks. It's two weeks on and two weeks off, or one week on and week off, whatever the subcontractor calls for. Except that some aboard have nothing to do, and not doing anything displeases those who lift, heave and grunt, and it irritates, paradoxically, those who need do nothing. Among the latter is the captain of the Panamanian M/V Ocean Victory, Joe W. Homer, 36, of North Kingstown, R.I., a master mariner whold holds a sheaf of licenses from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Capt. Homer exits the yellow, French-built helicopter, blasted by the rotor and burdened by back copies of The New York Times, a half-dozen upper-middlebrow best sellers, 14 fat garlic cloves and a bundle of pokeweed. Our captain loves pokeweed salad, believes that garlic improves the circulation and asserts, a la Joseph Heller, that time assigned to do nothing should be spent doing something. Capt. Homer wends his way to the bridge, a metal outcropping buried between decks, which identifies the platform's bow. Inside the closed roomlet are a head, a bunk and an instrument console replete with every gadget required by the Queen Elizabeth 2. Since he's never moved Ocean Victory so much as one foot, Capt. Homer readily denies knowledge of what the levers, rheostats, on-off switches and other gizmos actually do. Asked what he would do if a hurrican bore down, the skipper replies, "I dunno."

Yet ODECO maintains the rig can be underway within 24 hours. That may underlie the requirement -- it the source of grumbling -- that the company's at-sea higher-ups qualify as able-bodied seamen. Getting the rig going involves a number of time-consuming steps, such as raising anchor. Ocean Victory is moored above her hole by eight anchors dropped in a circle around the platform. The anchors, each weighing 30,000 pounds, are buried at the ends of 3,000-foot-long chains. The rig itself rides on water 445 feet deep, the rig connected to a drill "stack" that's snaking its way three miles below. The well's target depth is 16,000 feet, and for contrast's sake, the straight-line distance between the White House and the Capitol is 14,000 feet. Ocean Victory isn't a large rig, as such rigs go, just about the size of 50 two-bedroom apartments. Despite its dimensions, 323-by-266 feet, it is dwarfed by the Zapata Ugland, a Norwegian semi-submersible that Tenneco hired to drill a previous well nearby. Some oil and gas showed up in that hole, but not enough to justify laying pipeline and going into production. So the Zapata Ugland chugged away to points elsewhere and now Tenneco is paying ODECO twice as much for the services of Ocean Victory as it paid the Norwegians for Zapata Ugland.

As half the United Nations searches for offshore oil, it's a sellers' market for self-propelled, deep-sea, exploratory drill rigs, and Tenneco reports no other was available, so ODECO's price was paid.

Federal agencies riding herd over offshore oil platforms include the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the department of Engergy, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but only the U.S. Geological Survey is prone to drop in for unannounced inspections. Its helicopter landed on the Zapata Ugland last year, and the inspectors were greeted by the Viking captain. Being a Norwegian on Norwegian soil, he of course wore a beard.

"If you land again without permission," he reportedly shouted, "I'll put you in irons and throw you in the brig."

Capt. Joe Homer wields no such authority. His boundary of power begins at supervising safety procedures and ends at collecting urine samples, working in tandem with the Grass Dog.

Capt. Homer is a displaced person, the equivalent of a Navy Cruiser commander reassigned to a Pentagon billet, a cubicle and desk. The real power aboard Ocean Victory, as on any leased offshore oil rig, is the "company man," in this case John Sullivan, 36, from San Antonio, Tex. Sullivan's bunk is wired to his office, which is wired to the radio room, which is wired to satellites, which talk with shore control, and which keep this gracious, amusing Texan bouncing between deep fatigue and some kind of hyper-elation. John Sullivan, consequently, appears 16 one hour and 56 the next. Among many Dickensian characters on board, he was the consummate raggedy, dark-stained, disciplinary but always whimsical Fagin.

With the patience of a diplomat, Sullivan explains the vernacular of oil rigs. There are levels of competence and compensation, beginning at the bottom with the roustabouts, the paint chippers, the hod carriers, who earn $6.20 an hour and, after a few years' seasoning, become roughnecks who earn $8.06 an hour, doing their pas de trois at the drill. Home-study courses and on-the-job training make roughnecks into "monkey men," who tightrope along the girders, 200 feet up, to feed pipe down to roughnecks inserting or withdrawing their tubular drill. Derrick men, the monkeys, move up to drillrs who control the pressure bearing down on the drill stack. Advancement from moneky man to driller means a climb in pay, from $8.93 an hour to $11.33. Most of them work 12 hours a day for 14 days, or eight hours more than four normal 40-hour weeks, and then are off for 14 days before they begin the cycle again. Above this pyramid of tired, sweat-stained, mud-encrusted oil men stride the "toolpusher," the boss tapped by the drill rig subcontractor, in this case ODECO.

It's good form for John Sullivan to meet such gentlemen as they arrive via chopper for the biweekly stints. Quite obviously, this summer day, Sullivan was perturbed because the newcomers wore frowns. Worse, he didn't know why the men were upset. But there are few secrets board an oil rig, and this one couldn't be kept.

Someone at ODECO had ordered Joe Homer to collect urine samples from the arriving crew, a task onerous to the captain but which he nonetheless performed. "Not befitting," Homer said later. Hardier epithets were leveled by the crew, which felt to a man that what a man smoked, drank or diddled -- on his own time -- was none of ODECO's business. So, too, did Sullivan, who ordered the practice ended, even before he knew the exercise was a sham.

Marijuana, grass, pot, whatever, is a standard no-no on oil rigs, but ODECOs efforts to eliminate it from employe home-leave time was a new and unwelcome greeting from company executives who had already introduced the Grass Dog to the crewmembers' lives. As they were instructed to fill their specimen bottles, the men were told that marijuana would be spotted in their urine. Such a warning might provoke fear, even obedience, but it flies in the face of all medical evidence. Capt. Homer went about his unseasonlike urine collection duties with no knowledge that pot, unlike herion and alcohol, leaves no telltale traces in urine. According to American Medical Laboratories Inc., whose chemistry is relied on by hundreds of Washington physicians, experimental work involving radioisotopes is indeed underway, ubt analyses are costly, results are uncertain and middle-aged non-users seem unwilling to pay.

In ordering an end to urinalyses, John Sullivan was bolstered by fact.

I had asked Tenneco's permission to write about life aboard an oil rig; the conglomerate said "yes," and arranged the visit. My mission was to write a "human interest piece," and it was so described from the outset. A question seemed to follow: Living in such close quarters, preoccupied by dangerous duties, working to the edge of collapse, surrounded by a strange environment, was there time or room for humor? Indeed, yes. The raucous, bawdy humor common to combat was always present, yet with a subtle distinction. Unlike men under fire, the roughnecks seemed immune to fear, to cast it entirely aside. On the rotary platform, where roustabouts work, anything that falls or swings or torques the drill stack, when out of control, can result in injury. So noisy, so strenuous is it there that men don't shout, they watch each other's hands and eyes. A huge metal clamp caught a man's finger during my visit. It was touch and go whether he'd lose a digit; Tenneco ordered him evacuated by medical helicopter.

John Tipper, a loud, grizzled veteran of 30-odd years at sea who has climbed the ladder to toolpusher, served as keeper of ODECO anecdotes. Tipper recalls the day that a newly appointed U.S. Geological Survey inspector landed on the platform and immediately betrayed his ignorance by asking all the wrong questions.

Unfortunately -- for him and for ODECO -- the inspector left his camera in the command post while inspecting things he knew little about. The consensus, then, was to assemble the rig's store of triple-X-rated porno magazines, the raunchier the better. Using the inspector's quality camera, the pranksters photographed close-up, in color, a selection of "unofficial" scenes. The film cartridge was developed by a government laboratory and the prints returned to the inspector. But not before secretaires and bureaucrats examined photographs of performances rarely performed on oil rigs and not, certainly, within the purview of USGA.

Transmogrified by the experience, the inspector began terrorizing the Baltimore Canyon, enforcing regulations no one had even heard of. In this case, Big Oil's trifling with Big Government produced noxious consequences.

What time should I wake you up?" asks Kenny Branco, 28, of Warren R.I. As ballast control officer, Branco rates a huge "office" inside, and deep down, in one of the rig's 12 legs. There, one gets the sensation that Ocean Victory, no matter its mission, is really a ship. The portholes are almost at water level, and the constant wallowing motion of the anchored rig has been known to stimulate seasickness. With 21 pump controls, a thicket of other instruments and two nautical inclinometers, Branco can command improbable tricks from the metal monster. By twisting a few dials, he can make Ocean Victory heel over to throw the men from their bunks, but he works constantly at keeping the drill platform level to the sea. In port, he can make the rig fall on its side, a position that exposes a pontoon, enabling mechanics to change or overhaul an engine. And the responsibility doesn't bother him one bit.

Branco works in solitude, shielded from the world aloft by the skinniest of spiral staircases. Like most key personnel, he's connected by an intercom to others in authority, but rarely is he called, unless, for example, the rig's to be moved.

While on station, drilling, Ocean Victory is fully ballasted and draws 78 feet. Its two pontoons and 12 legs contain sea water, which counter-balances the weight of the structure above. Given the order to move, however, Branco's pumps will jettison the water; the rig will rise about 50 feet; and the two submarine engines will began pushing toward wherever. Yet visualizing the semi-submerisble rig, a hugh, square jungle gym, cruising across the mid-Atlantic, is difficult for laymen. The World War II C-3 Victory ship, successor to the Liberty ships, was 495 feet long and was rated at 10,000 deadweight tons, by way of comparison. Ocean Victory, while only 323 feet long, is much beamier, and she's it's tough to call this thing a "she" -- is rated at 11,000 deadweight tons.

In the rapid-fire deliver of a disc jockey, Branco says his job is "cool, no hassles." Alone with a few paperbacks and a sea-level window to stare through, he says (con brio), "I love it."

The Grass Dog is variously described as a deformed or misshappen German shepherd, a disgusting creature whose skill was taught and whose habit was inherited.

Crews outbound for Ocean Victory are met, irregularly, by the Grass Dog, who levels his nose at the lines of luggage. Marijuana's smell triggers frenzied barking and bristling back hair, and a search follows. On other occassions the Grass Dog pauses beside a suitcase and calmly lifts his leg. What signal stimulates that behaving isn't known, but it hardly endears the dog to the hard-hats. On occasion the Grass Dog is brought to Ocean Victory abroad a Petroleum Helicopters Inc. Chopper. Accordingly to roughnecks, the animal's arrival is synchronized with The Hydrogen Sulfide Drill, which requires that all aboard to topside and rendezvous at their escape capsules. The hound then bounds through the crew's quarters, sniffing for pot like a pointer after quail.

Once many months ago the Grass Dog leaped from his helcoptier only to bowl in agony. Angry at the animal's intrusions, a roughneck had sprinkled a lye-based chemical around the chopper pad. The dog spent that day licking his paws. Petrluem Helicopters Inc. grosses $2,000 flying the round trip from Providence, R.I., to Ocean Victory and back.

Standard operating procedure aboard oil rigs, American Petroleum Institute observers, is to work men to the brink of exhaustion then surround them with creature comforts. Without the latter, morale sinks Ocean Victory's foremen agree there is an inverse relationship between low morale and safely, and when the mud and safely, and when the mud engineer was asked what leads to low morale, he replied. "Lousy food, lousy television and management's hassling the means.

In prractice, however somthing has gone wrong aboard Ocean Victory. The cooks seemed really to be trying, baking fresh corn bread, serving five shifts, mixing fresh salads, searching for suggestions. Whether they succeeded was answered by one comment from one verteran roughneck. Observing a first-night vistor confronting a mound of food, he said: "Man, if you like that s -- , you ain't been out here long."

Wahoo, yellowfish tuna and other delectable deep-water fish stream by the oil rig during July and August, bound for cooler norther waters, and hundreds for pounds are caught but can't be cooked. Can't be cook because the national Marine Fisheries Services, or the Food and Drug Administration of some other federal agency (no cook knew which one) hasn't inspected the fish to pronounce it fit for consumption. Instead, on fish days, workers ate frozen cod from Canada, frozen shark from Great Britain or whatever considered "legal."

Ocean Victory's supply boat and its small, motor-driven launch troll frequently for the game fish and catch them in commercial quantities. It can only be assumed that "illegal" fish are tossed back (or perhaps mixed with frozen shark by those with influence in the galley).

There was also the mysterious requirement that two entrees be served at each sitting -- like the fish rule, no one knew who required it. Since the galley usually was open, and the entrees didn't change, the food at the steam table kept changing its complexion. At 11 a.m., an appetizing hue. At midnight, "Is this meat loaf, roast beff or hamburger?"

Grumbling about the food was endemic aboard Ocean Victory. Many Crewmen had worked aboard Oil Patch rigs, where the Cajun cooks created creoles and jambalayas that Georgetown chefs would envy. Shrimp boats were one of their secrets. Queues of Louisiana and Texas netters line up beside the production platforms to trade their still-wriggling catch for diesel oil, and presto, stews, crepes, cocktails and shrimp fries. But shrimp aren't netted in Baltimore Canyon oil fields, and Cajun chefs are rare in New England. The chefs aboard Ocean Victory use Fanny Farmer's Cookbook as their Bible.

It's perhaps nitpicking to scrutinze an ordinary cuisine, but the fact remains: Food wasn't popular. As one diner put it: "The most oil I've seen on this rig was underneath my eggs." Aboard this particularly offshore oil rig there were few distractions from work: sleep, exercise, reading, food, television and a contraption to play old moveies. the contrapion and the television were broken.

Add to the list of malfunctioning equipment the kitchen's garbarge disposer, which spewed unpulverized offal into the surrounding ocean water and lured sharks to the rig.

Oilmen describe a successful hole as one that "uncovers a significant show," but it Tenneco struck gas during my stay at sea, that fact was kep secret. The moment gas is evident, the well becomes "a tight hole," which means no publicity, no visitors and secrecy.

Tenneco leased Block 642 from the Interior Department for five years, paying 65 percent of an $8,$190,000 lease fee. Now, through ODECO, it's spending about $12 million to drill its third exploration hold in the block.

Yes, it's a lot of money, and yes, it's tax-deductible, but it's peanuts compared with the hundreds of millions that must be spent if Tenneco pipes its gas to Providence, R.I., or to Atlantic City. Secrecy comes into play because Tenneco's lease will expire in 1982, and if the company sounds too optimistic, the price of nearby "three-by-three," as the nine-square-mile blocks are often called, is certain to skyrocket at renewal time.

Among big oil companies, there is cooperation and competition. Little more than a mile from Tenneco's Ocean Victory, Exxon is drilling from the Alaskan Star, another semi-submersible. The company began a month before Tenneco, and its well's target depth is 17,000 feet. Already Tenneco has purchased Exxon's data, the log of technical insights, decipherable only by petroleum geologists, of the rock formations surrounding the columnar hole. Should the rock be porous, or should the drill encounter a cavity, there could be gas. Tenneco has two previous wells on Block 642; both produced significant shows. Should Exxon do likewise, and should Tenneco strike again, then some hardnosed J. R. Ewing types in Houston and Dallas must answer, quickly, a series of multi-million dollar questions:

Should we build a production platform out here? Does the find justify a pipeline to the mainland? What companies should be included in the partnership? Might another company move onto our turf? Tenneco estimates that if 200 million cubic feet of gas are accessible, then such a find would pay for production. Two hundred million cubic feet of natural gas is enough to heat 1,400 average American homes for a season. As of mid-summer, the company was certain of 70 million cubic feet. After well No. 3, Block 642, has shown the right (or wrong) stuff, then Tenneco must decide to fold atop Baltimore Canyon or to go for it. Such decisions are made by men in their late 20s or early 30s, who live with the odds, their careers on tenterhooks.

Wayne Dowdall, 33, from Houston, is with John Sullivan the other Tenneco man aboard Ocean Victory. His background is noteworthy, if not startling. Dowdall graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a master's degree in exploratory geology, and the "you of Mass," as they say, isn't renowned for its College of Geology. Only a trickle of oil flows from the entire state, and for Tenneco to select Dowdall to analyze a $12 million hole might seem strange, unless the conglomerate saw in him something extraordinary. Unlike his superior, Sullivan, the New Englander seems to flourish on his erratic schedule. He falls asleep looking 33 and arises looking 33, even if he napped for 12 minutes.

Dowdall analyzes mud and supervises the work of Johnston-Schlumberger, pronounced "Shlum-burr-jay," which uses dynamite, electronics and gamma rays to sample what's outside of Tenneco's hole. Mud is the bloodstream of an oil drill. It is, well, mud, but not just ordinary mud from the sea bottom or some passing mud puddle. Rather it comes in hundred-pound bags from suppliers, a half-dozen or more different varieties for varying drilling conditions. Tons of mud are kept ready aboard the supply ship. Forced in the well-shaft under pressure, it lubricates the drill, does some drilling itself and then recirculates back to the platform, where it's cleansed, weighed, weighted, lightened and analyzed. I remember only that mud makes everything slippery, that it discolors skin and clothing, that it sometimes returns prehistoric shark's teeth, that it will retrieve shards of rock that Dowdall interprets for Tenneco, describing the geology below the sea bottom.

The residents geologists has spent much time pondering why Tenneco (or any other giant) can lease an oil rig, station just two people aboard, subcontract almost everything and rely on this human brew to recommend the ultimate, astronomically costly "go-no go" decision. Dowdall sees the answer in subcontracting. "All these guys have to compete for a piece of the action," he says. "Those who don't perform won't get rehired. So I see it as capitalism, almost pure capitalism, working at its best. I argue that because the damn system works. We know that it works." On the other hand, Dowdall isn't at home with Internal Revenue regulations, as they affect oil companies, on write-offs, investment credits and the like.

About 18 inches from his ear, Dowdall has a computer readout, scanned at two-second intervals. Should the numbers disclose an aberration, he's awakened by the intercom. Then it's up like a shot, followed by a half-naked midnight dash to the laboratory that examines the mud.

Dowdall is clean-out, informative and cagey. "I'd be long at home," he said, "if the logs indicated a significant show." How different, he and Sullivan, from Randolph Scott being drenched by a B-movie gusher.

Conoco, Shell, Houston Oil, Exxon, Shell, Mobil, Gulf, Houston Oil, shell, Texaco, Gulf, Exxon, Tenneco, Texaco and Murphy have -- in chronological order -- drilled dry holes atop the most ballyhooed Baltimore Canyon oil field. The tabulation is put together by the "American Petroleum Institute's Atlantic Offshore Task Force," which migh, just might, be attempting to dramatize the high-stakes crapshoot nearing on end atop Baltimore Canyon. Potential discoveries number just three: two by Tenneco and one by Texaco. Dry holes number 18, and as one driller put it, "Everyone's losing their shirt out there." Only two companies are drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, off New Jersey. Still, Big Oil has paid government $1.17 billion for Baltimore Canyon oil leases. Summation: It's costly, it's deductible and if often leads to dry holes, but potential profits are enormous.

When Tenneco's drill bit hits 16,000 feet, it will penetrate rock strata that date back to the Jurassic Period, a time when dinosaurs stalked the earth, a period when Tyrannosaurus rex, the earth's most fearsome predator, hunted and killed. The companies still are hunting, awaiting their kill, though Baltimore Canyon looms right now as a gigantic dry hole.