PITY THE POOR Coast Guard! In the age of the quarter-mile-long supertanker and the atomicship, the nation's premier maritime agency creaks along, barnacled with legislation unchanged since the age of sail.

While new laws give it province over radar transmitters and oil spills, old ones still keep it busy guarding seamen from being shanghaied to the forecastle of some Bombay-bound clipper:

If the clipper ships have vanished, the laws inspired by them have not. Every merchant seaman shipping for a foreign voyage under U.S. flag still signs a set of century-old articles guaranteeing him both a daily issue of lime juice (to prevent scurvy) and a schedule of provisions that includes three-fourths of an ounce of "green berry" coffee daily and a half-pint of molasses three times a week.

"No dangerous weapons or grog allowed," cautions the contract, "and none to be brought on board by the crew."

The Coast Guard estimates it currently uses up some 7,000 man-hours a month paying lip service to such antique provisions of U.S. law, much of it written belatedly in 1872 to reform the long-abused seaman's life before the mast.

Powerful maritime unions have long since supplanted government as the seaman's protector, but the unions themselves together with bureaucratic ankle-biting and congressional shrugs have repeatedly torpedoed efforts to streamline the shipping laws.

"They haven't shown us where it's in our interest to change things," said Capt. Bill Rich, research director of the Masters, Mates and Pilots Union. "Even what may be considered out-moded . . . you give some of these shipowners a loophole and they'll put you back on lime juice in a minute."

"Theodore Roosevelt warned Congress in 1904 that the shipping laws were in atrocious shape, but nothing's ever really been done," moans one civil servant grown old in the fruitless battle to update things.

"Our friends in the FAA talk about regulations, but they've never even heard of the Revised U.S. Statutes of 1874. We live and breathe that stuff every day. A lot of our laws go back to 1790."

Today's U.S. merchant fleet, dwindled to a mere 747 ships by the cheaper competition of foreign ships and crews, actually moves more cargo than its vast 19th century counterpart, due to larger, more efficient ships which spend little time in port. It did so last year, however, only with help of some $134 million in federal subsidies.

The humble U.S. seaman, who once scaled ice-covered rigging above a stormy sea for $1 a day, now works in an automated world of air conditioned cabins and $1,000-a-month salaries on a new generation of ships, some of which put to sea bearing swimming pools for the crew.

The Coast Guard, convinced that such ships, if not the laws that govern them, have changed in recent years, plans to have another go at the laws this year. But the service is not optimistic.

"Nowadays we're in the pollution business, the fishing business, the marine safety enforcement business and a hundred other things," said Capt. Donald Hand, chief of the merchant vessel personnel division, "and the budget constraints are really severe. We're tyring to see what duties we can unload without affecting the actual safety of any U.S. vessel."

One likely target is the Coast Guard's 31 shipping commissioners who for the past century have personally supervised the enrollment and discharge of every merchant seaman on every coast-to-coast or foreign voyage. The commissioners are bureaucratic relics of the golden age of sail, when American ships were both the proudest and most appalling vessels on the sea.

Sleek-hulled and crowded with sail, the Yankee clippers rode the winds to record round-the-world passages as some of the fastest, most beautiful ships ever built.

Their speed and grace, however, were purchased at an incredible cost in human suffering. Their wealth of sails (one memorable tea clipper had 63) demanded huge crews while their narrow holds limited them to relatively small cargoes and correspondingly small margins of profit.

Perpetually undermanned, the Yankee clippers became known as "hell ships," driven by brutal captains for whom a speedy passage was quite literally more important than a crewman's life.

Feared and shunned by many seamen for their man-killing reputations, the clippers were often crewed largely by drunks shangaied from the last port of call by "crips" who doped them in waterfront bars and delivered them unconscious to the clipper captain for a fee.

When the men finally woke, they found themselves at seas dodging the fists and cudgels of bully mates and bound, on a diet of weevily biscuit and wormy salt beef, for a grueling, months-long passage around Cape Horn.

Agitation for improvement of the seaman's lot began following publication of Richard Henry Dana's book "Two Years Before the Mast," in 1840, but reforms came slowly.

The American public, whose impression of the mariner was largely drawn from the seamy character of most waterfronts, tended to look on seamen as a race of violent, ne'er-do-well drifters, whose hardships at sea were deserved penance for their disreputable life ashore.

Mariners, moreover, were political eunuchs. Uneducated, unorganized and out of touch with land for months or years at a time, they formed no constituency and had little faith in political or legal solutions to any of their problems.

Tiny Concessions

REFORM, however, finally did come, and an annotated copy of Title 46 of the U.S. Code gives a glimpse of now much it was needed.

Section 666 provides that "every vessel belonging to a citizen of the U.S. bound from a port in the U.S. to any foreign port, and every sailing vessel bound on a voyage across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean or around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, or engaged in whaling or other fisheries or in sealing, shall be provided with lime or lemon juice. Within 10 days after salt provisions mainly have been served out to the crew, the master shall order the serving of lime or lemon juice and sugar at the rate of One-half ounce per day and vinegar at the rate of one-half pint her week for each member of the crew."

That law, passed in 1872, was the first requirement that ship owners take steps to prevent scurvy, a disease of vitamin c deficiency whose cause had been pinpointed in 1750 but which remained a leading cause of death on long ocean voyages. Mariners subsisting mainly on hard biscuits and salt meat agonized with swollen and bleeding gums, loosened teeth, sore joints and bleeding under the skin. they became anemic and the cuts and bruises endemic to shipboard life were slow to heal.

A court decision in 1897 established that "where there is evidence that every one of a crew was afflicted with scurvy, of which several died . . . the jury is justified in finding there was a lack of suitable food" (provided by the master).

Another decision the same year, in the case of a vessel called the T.F. Oakes, established that "Where a sailing vessel, starting from Hong Kong by the Cape of Good Hope, was driven by bad wheather several hundred miles eastward, and the master changed route by way of Cape Horn 5,000 to 7,000 miles further, for which route the supplies were plainly insufficient, consequent suffering of crew from scurvy, etc., must be compensated in damages, the master having failed to stop at Honolulu, Chili (sic) or Rio de Janeiro as he might easily have done."

The compensation was usually on the order of a dollar a day, roughly equal to that era's wage for an able-bodied seaman. Prying such tiny concessions out of shipowners seems to have been a major role of the maritime laws.

Earlier decisions had granted to seamen "captured by the public enemy" (during the War of 1812) or shipwrecked the right to some financial help from the shipowner for the cost of the trip back home.

But it was 1898 before the law would provide that "every vessel bound on any foreign voyage exceeding in length 14 days shall be provided with at least one suit of woolen clothing for each seaman" as well as "a safe and warm room for use of seamen in cold weather." Even that law, however-a minimal safeguard against the dangers of exposure on an icy sea - was drawn so as to exempt whaling and fishing vessels, whose crewmen probably needed it most of all.

The most important safeguard of the 1872 law, however, was the revolutionary notion that abduction and violence were less than proper methods of recruiting seamen for the merchant trade.

To this end shipping commissioners were created to police the process of hiring seamen before each voyage, and to this end still they certify that each mariner signs the required articles "freely and voluntarily . . . while sober and not in a state of intoxication."

The commissioners were designed also to serve as a sort of government-run hiring hall, by certifying the qualifications of various grades of seamen and by keeping registers of seamen looking for jobs and ships looking for men.

The law still encourages them to "facilitate the making of apprenticeships to the sea service," including shipping out boys 12 year of age.

But he unions have taken over that function, too.

"We used to keep a list of people who came in looking to go to sea," said Sam Loskutoff, 65, a shipping commissioner in San Pedro, Calif., for most of the past 42 years. "But that was back in the '30s, and soon we started to get heat from the unions about it, so that pretty much went by the board."

Loskutoff, one of the Coast Guard's most senior shipping commissioners, remembers a ship about 30 years ago which ran short of food during a voyage across the Pacific. A shipping commissioner was called in, he said, to award the men a cash payment because of the shortage.

And he say he can remember a time or two back then when a seamen would demand his "whack" - the minimal daily provision still itemized in U.S. law, and a shipping commissioner would see that he got it.

But provisioning has changed so radically that some crews refuse to accept canned corn rather than fresh corn, and shipowners worry about providing properly butchered fresh goat meat for the occasional Hindu.

For the most part, Loskutoff said, he can't remember a single time in the past 25 years when a shipping commissioner was actually called on to do anything.

One Coast-Guard employe, who asked not to be identified, said he worked a year as a shipping commissioner in New Orleans "and it was the sweetest year of my life: We never did anything."

He said just signing on seamen and signing them off can take from one to three days, with the commissioners frequently spending much of their time just getting to where the ship is, "and then just sitting around drinking coffee waiting for the stragglers to come in."

The absurdity of the shipping commissioner function, he said, is underlined by the fact that commissioners aren't required for voyages to Mexico, the West Indes or along either coast. In those cases, the master of the ship signs the men on, with no requirement that he have any contract with his men.

Commissioners are required for voyages from coast to coast, however, because the law predates the Panama Canal and in those days "a coast-to-coast voyage was a very, very long one . . . The real purpose was to prevent men from being shanghaied onto voyages where they would be out of touch with sore for months at a time."

Rich and several other union officials said they oppose any change in the shipping commissioner function on largely philosophical grounds-because it would amount to "retreating" by removing a hard-won safeguard from law. No one in the labor movement, they said, wants to see that kind of precedent set.

"There's No Crisis Here"

A GREATER stumbling block than labor, however, has been the government itself.

In 1962, when the Coast Guard was part of the Treasury Department, Treasury ordered a complete redrafting and streamlining of the hundreds of pages shipping laws dealing with everything from seamen's rights to pleasure craft.

The task took three people three years, and produced a 104-page bill which included some 4 1/2 pages dealing solely with tidying up the preexisting legislation.

It was all finished just in time for the Coast Guard to be shifted to the Department of Transportation, which promptly said it wanted its own recodification of the shipping laws and, essentially, shot down three years of work.

DOT, however, has never taken up the subject again.

The Coast Guard has, at times, tired to move unilaterally on administrative changes, such as in the size and design of the wallposter-sized shipping articles for seamen. It has failed to get the shippers and the unions to agree on any changes, however, and now nobody in the Coast Guard's legislation division can remember what changes were proposed.

"We've had a lot of turnover here," explained one employe in the division. "There's nobody who's been here more than six months."

Meanwhile, in Congress, where it's been said that the urgent takes precedence over the important, there is little sense of urgency about moving the shipping laws into the 20th century.

"There's no crisis here, really," said one disillusioned Coast Guardsman close to the problem. "All it really involves is inefficient government and tax money wasted. It's been going on so long it's no longer news." CAPTION: Illustration 1, 2, no caption