So much seawater was pounding over the bow and down the decks of the Marine Electric on Feb. 11 that a man stowing lines in the stern, 600 feet back, found himself awash to his chest.

Steaming into the teeth of a rainy, winter gale, Capt. Philip Corl dropped to half-throttle. The pounding eased. Marine Electric was making 1.3 knots, hove-to and riding out the kind of weather she was built to take.

Day wore into stormy night and the wind hardened. While most of the crewmen slept in their cabins, it was impossible for those on the bridge to see the bow, pitching and rolling 400 feet ahead. By midnight they felt the vessel growing heavy up forward. They worried she was taking water but conditions were too bad for anyone to go up and see.

Shortly after 4 a.m., Marine Electric, a coal freighter "jumbo-ized" from a World War II tanker, lay dead in the water 30 miles offshore, listing slightly to starboard, her engines still and her 34-man crew standing by to abandon her.

They were launching the starboard lifeboat when with a sudden and unexpected lurch the ship rolled onto that side, tossing men and boats and rafts overboard, then crashing down on top of them. Some men came up. Some did not. Three survived until daylight and were rescued. Thirty-one died.

The sinking of the Marine Electric is a ghastly tale of men who lay in frigid shelter, watching their shipmates perish from cold and watching the eerie, blinking strobe lights on vacant life-rings whipping past, borne on the crests of 15-foot seas.

It is a tale of an aging steel ship finally giving up the battle against salt water and time; of an industry so troubled that the men in it, according to one, might sail an unsafe ship rather than report her infirmities.

"There's a lot of pressure to make things do," said Bill Daniels, captain of a tanker. "The feeling is, 'This ship may not be that seaworthy, but I need the job.' "

And it's the story of swift and deadly surprise. Two survivors who testified to investigators last week had no trouble recounting the way the ship's bow grew heavy until she couldn't go on.

They were composed as they recalled their harrowing hours in the water awaiting rescue, but each choked and halted in describing the final lurch when Marine Electric rolled onto her side. It is every seaman's private nightmare: "I never thought, nor did anyone, that she'd go over so fast," said chief mate Robert M. Cusick, a 40-year mariner.

A Marine Board of Investigation hearing, which will resume Tuesday with testimony from the third survivor, third mate Eugene Kelly, is trying to determine if wrongdoing played a part in the tragedy and whether government licensing and regulations need improvement to prevent such accidents in the future.

Lawyers for some crewmen argued that inadequate maintenance and repairs by the owners left the ship unsafe. Survivors Cusick and seaman Paul Dewey testified that the ship's huge hatch covers were rusted, buckled, warped, full of holes and not watertight. Federal standards require the 40-foot-wide covers, big enough to lower a bulldozer through, to be watertight.

But the two men said the hatch covers were in rough enough shape that they probably leaked badly or even broke up in the heavy pounding, allowing water to cascade into the cargo holds and weigh down the bow.

The owners deny it. Joseph Thelgie, fleet director for Marine Transport Lines, Inc., testified the cargo covers were weathertight and any holes were sealed.

"I don't believe we had any problem as far as ingress of water into the cargo holds on the night of the sinking ," Thelgie said. "I believe the hull was broached."

The Marine Electric was fabricated in 1962 from two halves of a 1944 tanker welded to either end of a new, 400-foot-long midsection. It was a common way of salvaging tankers after World War II, turning 200-footers into 600-footers.

A serviceable cargo ship resulted but she was "no lady," said William Long, who sailed the Marine Electric in the North Atlantic. "She was very wet up forward, of course."

Marine Electric had five cargo holds, each holding about 5,000 tons of coal. The holds were separated from each other by bulkheads and from the steel hull by air spaces called ballast tanks.

When the ship was empty the ballast tanks surrounding the cargo holds were filled with seawater to weigh the ship down to her sailing trim. When she was loaded with coal this seawater ballast was pumped out and air in the tanks provided buoyancy.

Daniels, the tanker captain who listened to all testimony last week for his own education, believes that as long as the ballast tanks were intact, flooding the cargo holds through the leaky hatch covers would not have sunk the ship.

He said the buoyancy of the ballast tanks would have kept her afloat, regardless of how much water got in the holds. But if both the cargo holds and the ballast tanks took on water, he said, it could send her to the bottom.

This sort of "progressive flooding" was suspected by informed observers at the hearings: A leak develops forward, either into a cargo hold or the hull; the weight of the extra water draws the bow down and sends it crashing into the steep seas. The extra weight and the pounding stresses all metals. Another breach develops; more water enters and the cycle feeds upon itself.

There is some indication that water got into the ballast tanks. Dewey overheard an engineer reporting "good pressure" on No. 1 starboard pump during the crisis. That pump's job was to empty the starboard ballast tanks. Since the ship was loaded, the tanks should have been empty. And when the ship finally capsized it went over to starboard.

Marine Electric's general condition sounded "a bit worse than average" to Daniels, who said small profits in the U.S. shipping trade don't justify new ships. Daniels painted a picture of an industry struggling to stay alive.

"There's always a rush to get out of drydock," he said. "The primary objective is to get the ship out and get it moving. You hear, 'We can get by,' or 'We'll fix it under way' or 'The weather won't be bad.' "