When she passed through a room, dust and odd bits of paper danced in her wake. . . the feather in her antiquated bonnet nodding raffish defiance, she looked not unlike a blowzy but exceedingly combative buldog.

"Tugboat Annie Brennan. That's what the waterfront calls me. And I didn't get the name pushin' toy boats around the bathtub, either..." --From the Tugboat Annie stories by Norman Reilly Raine

Tugboat Annie would have kicked her share of butts in the Baltimore Harbor where Melvin Szarek began working 33 years ago. Back when the air was thick with the smoke of coal-burning tugboats and the waterfront was loud with honky-tonk bars, a sailor could expect to get snookered, socked, maybe even shanghaied. And all that on a weekday afternoon.

"Those were some good days," says Szarek, a short, muscled, 54- year-old with friendly blue eyes and only a small scar to show where his left ear was sewn back onto his head after being torn off 10 years ago by an errant rope. "We used to go to this bar called the Light House. Women in there would keep knives hidden in the tops of their stockings. Maybe one tooth in their head. There were some real fights in that place. Of course we used to be tougher then."

Szarek is telling tales on the deck of the Drum Point, a 94-foot, 2,360-horsepower tugboat churning across the harbor in search of a ship six times its size to push around. He is one of the Drum's five crew who together have spent more than a century and a half doing work that is still as tough as any to be found.

The hours are long enough to depress a workaholic, the weather fluctuates from full broil to deep freeze, and there are at least a half-dozen opportunities each year for a careless man to lose a limb, maybe a life.

Old-timers complain that tugboating today has lost some of the grit and eccentricity that earned it such a notorious place in American folklore. A revolution in cargo shipping that cleared much of the commercial traffic from America's harbors in the last 15 years has also reduced the size of their tugboat fleets and bleached some of the color from the ones that remain.

"Cargo ships are much bigger now, and there are fewer of them," says Otto Gugliotta, the Drum Point's captain who has spent 38 of his 55 years working on tugboats in Baltimore's harbor. "And with fewer ships you don't need as many tugboats. When I started working (for Curtis Bay Towing Company) in 1944 we had 23 tugs. Now we have just eight."

Twenty years ago Baltimore's harbor was so thick with barges, scows, car ferries, fruit ships and tramp steamers that tugboat pilots had to bully a path through them. It was a task many of the old captains undertook with relish and an inventive use of expletives. Now, except for summer when plastic pleasure boats create havoc in the harbor, the steel-hulled tugboats and the relatively few giant cargo ships they serve have the water to themselves.

The tugboats that work the harbor (only 14 still do ship-docking duty, all owned by two towing companies) have the classic tugboat shape. Low in the stern, they rise out of the water to round, rubber-coated bows that resemble the lower lip of a bully looking for a fight. And the tugs can still sound a toot worthy of an 11-year-old's admiration.

But more has changed than stayed the same. Orders that were once communicated from ship to tug and back again by a sweet cacophony of whistles, tweets and toots are now done with walkie-talkies. Tugboat captains who used to race from the harbor to approaching ships, then bid against one another for the towing job, get their orders these days from corporate offices on shore. The tugs themselves, once as individual as the men who owned or piloted them, now sport pretty paint jobs, Formica and stainless steel galleys and engine rooms clean enough to host a dinner party.

The biggest changes are among the men who work the tugs. Tugboaters in decades past were reputed to be the toughest, two-fisted sailors in any port. But the cutback in crews has eliminated many of the younger men on tugs. Those with the most seniority are generally family men, long in years and short on carousing.

"When we get off the boat we've got to go home to our families to make sure the wives and kids know who the father is," says Joe Krause, first mate on the Cape Romain, and a veteran of 38 years on tugboats. Krause's father and brother, both deceased, were tugboat captains. His son, Joe Jr. is first mate on the Drum Point. He has had his head stitched twice after work-related accidents and was involved 35 years ago in a harbor mishap that left his tugboat battered and a second one sunk. But ask him about retiring and Krause just laughs. "My wife wants me to quit. She says its been long enough. But most people get carried away from this job toes up."

"In 10 years all the old-time tugboat men will be gone," says Bill Miller, director of New York City's annual Harbor Festival and tugboat buff. "The old flavor is gone. But that was inevitable. We are living in a cost-efficient era."

Baltimore Harbor and its 45 miles of coal piers, warehouses, marine terminals, container wharves and rail yards account for $3 billion in business a year--roughly 11 percent of Maryland's gross productivity. The harbor business affects directly or indirectly 170,000 jobs. Even slight damage to piers, ships or tugboats can cost thousands of dollars in repairs and lost productivity. Tugboats that in the past were riveted with pieces of old Navy destroyers and derelict banana boats today cost an estimated $2 million to build.

"There's no little damage done when damage is done," says Francis Lukowski, 36, a captain who works for McAllister Brothers, a rival to Curtis Bay Towing. Lukowski is drinking beer in the Cat's Eye Pub, across from the McAllister and Curtis Bay piers in the Fells Point section of Baltimore. The Cat's Eye is dark, decorated in fishing nets, oars and sailor's knots. It looks like the kind of bar that would attract rowdy sailors.

"There aren't any fights in here," says Jerome Lukowski, Francis' uncle and a first mate on a McAllister tug. In times past, when captains competed directly for harbor business, rival crews might mix things up. But now tugboat men share the same union (Seafarers International) and leave the bidding wars to be fought by their corporate bosses.

"It's a very competitive business," says a Curtis Bay official standing high and dry on the eighth floor of Baltimore's 28- story World Trade Center. From the carpeted comfort of the Curtis Bay offices, one looks down on what was once the old Curtis Bay tugboat pier and the rusted waterfront that surrounded it; both have been replaced by the glass and chrome glitter of Baltimore's $50 million Inner Harbor.

If tugboat crews no longer battle one another in harbor bars, there is still a fair amount of conflict to be heard on the waterfront. But the modern barbs are aimed by tugboatmen mostly at their own managements. The complaints are the universal ones of the working class. Too many hours for not enough pay.

"You may have perceived there is some animosity between labor and management," says Henry Gamp, 33, a Curtis Bay captain who has a red beard, a tugboat painted on the hood of his Datsun pickup and a reputation with his bosses as "controversial." Gamp says the $10.67 an hour he makes as a captain is not equal to the rigors of the job.

The tug companies counter that their employes make more money than all but a few of America's skilled workers. Szarek, a deckhand and the lowest paid member of the tug crew, last year earned $100 less than $40,000. But three- fourths of that money, he says, was in overtime pay. "You can make all the money you want, but you have to lormica and stainless steeive here to do it," says Lester Lutrell, the engineer on the Drum Point.

Despite complaints, few tugboat men say they would trade their jobs for any other. Most have had at least one other job for comparison. Lutrell was an engineer on deep-sea fishing boats. Gugliotta worked in a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Szarek took off a year to learn boat building. And Joe Krause Jr., 29, first mate on the Drum Point, almost let his father dissuade him from following the family tugboat tradition.

"I started college to study business," says Krause, who looks more like a high school science teacher than a weather- worn sailor. "But I couldn't go along with being an accountant. There's a challenge to this job. There's always something different."

The challenges are not always pleasant. When a sudden wind blows up while a tug is towing a 12-story, 70,000-ton car carrier, the tug can be dragged along like a 5-year-old trying to hold on to a Great Dane. Then there are the bloated bodies of drowning victims that bob up in the harbor each spring. A few years ago Gugliotta rescued a woman who had tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The woman wasn't grateful.

"I think she had mental problems," says Gugliotta, who has a reputation for keeping his thoughts to himself. Krause remembers one six-hour period when the two men shared the pilot house and Gugliotta said just one word: "Yeah."

On this day the two will have more to say. They have been dispatched to a pier where the 600-foot Arctic Troll has just filled its massive hold with grain. The Troll, out of London and on its way to Crete, must be shoved from the pier, turned 180 degrees in the middle of the channel, then guided through a temporary break in a silt pumping line.

Gugliotta leaves Krause in charge of the tug while he pilots the Troll. Another Curtis Bay tug, the Cape Romain, is stationed at the bow. While the tugs nestle themselves like small fish against the orange hull of the Troll, some of the English sailors, covered in white grain dust, lean over their own rail and watch.

All goes well while the Troll is undocked and spun. But halfway to the gap in the pipeline, it veers left. Gugliotta calmly tells his first mate that the Troll has lost its ability to steer. With matching calm, the Drum Point abandons its spot on the stern and powers forward to stop the Troll. To a visitor on deck, the Troll appears to be headed for a collision with the floating pipes.

While Gugliotta and Krause converse, Szarek and Robert Keller, the Drum's other deckhand, go to the bow of their tug without being told and get ready to secure the Troll with ropes for towing. Dacron ropes --seven inches in diameter, weighing one pound per foot and capable of slashing through steel if they snap while stretched--are hauled up the side of the Troll by a five-man crew. In 20 minutes the Troll is towed to open water, where it regains its steerage and begins a two-week trip.

In earlier times, Gugliotta would have routinely been presented a fifth of whiskey by the captain of the ship he piloted. This day he returns with only a white layer of grain dust on his gray flannel pants and black loafers.

The Drum has one more assignment, moving a sugar barge from one pier to another a few hundred yards away. Then the crew will call it a day. No one is planning to celebrate a relatively short 91/2-hour work day with a visit to the Cat's Eye.

"In the old days we had a lot more fun in this business," says the 58-year-old Keller, who is still called Whitey, though his crewcut hair long ago grew gray. "We all traveled together, went to bars. Of course we were younger then. I guess we've gotten that out of our system." graphics 1-3/illustrations: Pilot Tug Harbor graphics 4/illustration: Balsa IV graphics 5/illustration: Bullying