Like a charlady in a harem, the gaunt black hull of the USS Torsk, a World War II-vintage submarine, sits amid the toney shops and splashy ambiance of the Inner Harbor here.

Nobody's quite sure why, but either because of, or in spite of, its forbidding outward appearance, it draws 140,000 paying visitors a year, $2.50 each for adults, a buck for kids. Inside is the brightly lit miniaturized world of submarine dials, switches, torpedos, berths and narrow passageways.

But all is not well in submarineland. With its bow painted in a perpetual shark's teeth grin, the 311-foot Torsk recently has become the object of a polite squabble between Mayor William D. Schaefer's savvy tourism strategists and a band of nostalgic World War II submarine veterans over how best to showcase the boat for the public.

The mayor's men want quick in-and-out crowds to stream unhindered through the submarine and generate additional revenues for the city. The vets want to continue what they used to do: taking groups of 15 or 18 people at a time and guiding them with a long walk-through narrative spliced with personal yarns and a question-and-answer session.

The tours, conducted by volunteer vets, were cut out last summer by the city. The vets are limited to standing on the pier outside the Torsk and answering questions by stray tourists.

Meetings between the warring factions, including high-ranking officials from the city's Recreation and Parks Department, so far have failed to settle the dispute over the submarine, which is owned by the state.

The Navy, which retains the right to inspect retired ships even after they have been turned over to other agencies, plans to pay the Torsk a visit, possibly next week, to see if it is being displayed in an authentic and "dignified" manner, a Navy spokesman said. Some vets have complained that, since their guided tours were eliminated, the boat has fallen prey to vandals and souvenir hunters roaming unattended inside the boat. City officials say the complaint is greatly exaggerated.

"We had a class act going," said John H. Reichart, 59, a sub vet describing the guided tours as he stood by the Torsk the other day in his distinctive plumed campaign hat and beribboned blue-and-yellow guide's vest.

"They're just trying to . . . cram more people through now," said Reichart, a retired structural iron worker who saw action in the Pacific on the submarine Bicuna four decades ago. Several other vets, all members of the Delmarva chapter of the 7,000-member U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, grumbled in agreement.

Art Zilio, assistant director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, a city agency that runs the Torsk show, said, "It's not that simple. The guided tours were nice, but they created huge backups" in the lines of tourists waiting to board the Torsk, causing many to leave in exasperation.

"Some of the vets were taking almost an hour to take a group through," Zilio said. "Other people would have to wait in line in the hot sun and would get pretty impatient." The city was losing revenue and gaining ill will, he said, and "something had to give."

With or without the tours, the Torsk is a moneymaker. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, it took in $230,000 and had $50,000 left over after expenditures, including $8,000 earmarked for a submarine veterans' scholarship fund, according to city figures.

The surplus will be used for big-ticket maintenance projects, Zilio said, especially on another city-maintained boat, the retired lightship Chesapeake, which is moored adjacent to the Torsk as a secondary tourist attraction on Pier 4 in the Inner Harbor. Both boats are operated by the maritime museum.

What the city has now gained in efficient tour lines, it has lost in personal touch, say the vets.

"People like to ask questions," says Jim Woomer, 60, the crew-cut commander of the vets' Delmarva chapter. " 'How long does it take for a sub to dive?' 'How do you feed an 82-man crew on such a small boat?' Things like that . . . . We can answer those questions because we served on those boats."

Zilio, 38, who served four years in the Army, acknowledges the vets "are a living, breathing part of this boat . . . . I'm not saying they're wrong. I'm saying you gotta look at my side."

Sure, "the guided tours . . . were much more personal, but at the same time, it's not personal when you're hot and standing in line for an hour" waiting to get on the sub, he said.

Also, Zilio argues, "The average tourist just wants to walk through and say, 'Hey, I've been on a submarine.' They don't want to know how many gallons of sea water it has to take in to dive . . . and that kind of stuff."

For the more serious visitor, Zilio says he is planning to rent Walkman-style audio cassette tapes with a complete narrative.

Woomer snaps, "Yeah, but a tape can't answer questions . . . . People love sea stories."

Another sore point with some of the vets is that the bulk of the revenues generated by the Torsk -- named after a fish of the cod family -- goes to the upkeep of the Chesapeake lightship, one of the ships formerly used to mark the channels along the Atlantic Coast.

True, says Zilio, but the Chesapeake is a sea-going vessel used for good will tours to other East Coast cities. As such, it must be kept in operating order and meet U.S. Coast Guard inspection standards. The Torsk, by contrast, is permanently moored and requires less upkeep, Zilio says.

In answer to rumors rife among the vets that the Chesapeake is also used for private parties, Zilio says the city stages one party a year for "volunteers and their spouses" who give time, money or materials for the upkeep of the two boats.

Zilio said he also plans to improve pier where the two boats are berthed near the Baltimore National Aquarium. In addition to a display torpedo and a periscope mounted in a mockup conning tower on the pier, he said he is acquiring other surplus submarine armaments for display and building a new ticket kiosk and gate entrance in anticipation of expanded crowds next summer caused by the scheduled opening of a massive Six Flags family entertainment center nearby.