When the crippled Liberian-registry tanker Golden Jason - filled with 9 million gallons of crude oil - was towed into port here five days ago, its captain quickly requested directions to the local Greek Orthodox Church.

He wanted to offer a prayer of thanks for reaching port safely, and he could have been excused for treating the accomplishment as a miracle. "It's hard to beleive a ship in this condition could even sail," a U. S. Coast Guard Commander said after inspecting and impounding the decrepit tanker.

The Coast Guard's cursory initial inspection found the Golden Jason's engine dead, its four orange lifeboats inoperable. The ship's anchors had lost so much chain in an accident that the tanker could not safely drop anchor. Electrical wiring througout the ship was makeshift. "They'd put in an extension cord and run it a half mile down the ship," said the Coast Guard commander.

The Coast Guard also discovered that the tanker was not in compliance with a 1974 warning it received in Providence, R. I., about meeting U. S. antipollution requirements before coming into American waters.

As flagrant as these violations were, this was far from the first time the Golden Jason had run afoul of shipping authorities. According to records obtained by The Washington Post from Lloyd's of London - which insures most ocean-going ships - the Jason has been involved since 1964 in 16 separate accidents - including at least one oil spill - many stemming from crew negligence and many from engine failures that left the tanker drifting without power at sea.

By making it into port here, the Golden Jason has once again been somehow luckier than a number of similiar oil tankers that have recently disappeared or broken up at sea, creating catastrophic oil spills that have alarmed environmentalists.

These mishaps have also controversy over so-called "flags of convenience" like the Liberian flag flown by most of the tankers involved in recent accidents and by the dilapidated Golden Jason.

The flag of convenience has enabled the Golden Jason to lead a checkered life on the high seas, dodging minimal safety standards with even the identity of its true owners shielded from authorities.

"Back in the 50s, I've seen some awful things on the water and under our own flag," said Commander R. F. Ingraham, a Coast Guard inspector here, but the Jason, he conceded, represents one of the worst ships he has ever seen.

Traditionally ship owners have registered large numbers of ships in the countries of Panama and Liberia, avoiding taxes, safety regulations, wage rates and other requirements that they would face if the same ship would be registered in the U. S. or many other nations. They took those steps "historically to avoid everything," Commander Ingraham said.

Most countries have agreed to some international conventions setting minimun safety standards. Liberia and Panama have ship regulations and inspectors but enforcement have been virtually meaningless, some U. S. Maritime officials have said, "If any one of their ships is in compliance [with the Liberian safety rule] they've got a good ship," Ingraham said.

Officials say the Golden Jason, a rusting 683-foot-long tanker sitting alongside an abandoned coal pier now could have been another Argo Merchant, the tanker that spilled 7.6 million gallons of oil off Nantucket Island in mid-December.

Just how the Jason had its latest accident isn't clear. A crew member who spoke broken English said today that the ship's boilers failed as it was carrying a load of 9.2 million gallons of black No. 6 oil for a trip from Venezuela to New York.

The ship had been out of service for almost a year in Jacksonville, Fla. where it apparently went uninspected by Coast Guard officials, according to the crewman's account. The ship was to be sold for scrap and to be taken to Spain to be dismantled, he said.

Before the trip to Spain, the Jason's owners got a contract to carry the oil to New York.

Coast Guard officials say the ship was somewhere off the North Carolina coast Monday when its main boiler failed. A British tug towed the Jason to Hampton Roads where the Coast Guard insisted that a second tug join before the tanker could enter the port.

Once the ship was berthed a Coast Guard team of inspectors boarded the vessel and discovered what Coast Guard commander Russell E. Sawyer said were obvious defects.

Although the Coast Guard has laid down a set of strict safety requirements before it will allow this ship to sail, authorities concede they'll have no control over the ship after it gets three miles off the shore into international waters.

The dilemma illustrates parts of the problem the U.S. Coast Guard faces in policing the hundreds of foreign flag ships that enter U. S. waters every day. According to Sawyer, the Coast Guard is able to inspect only one of every four foreign tankers that enters Hampton Roads, one of the major U. S. ports on the east coast.

"We just don't have the manpower" to inspect more ships he said.Sawyer's Norfolk office maintains a staff of about 32 inspectors who are reasonable for ports in Virginia and most of North Carolina.

When the Jason arrived here, Andrew Bacon, a local merchant who sells supplies to ships chatted with members of the mostly Greek-speaking crew and found them "scared and afraid" after their experience at sea.

"Aboard ship, he (the captain) was brave but when he was here last night he said he had been scared," Bacon said.

Efforts to find the ship's captain today were unsuccessful, "Everyone's out to lunch" a man abroad the ship shouted from the windswept deck of the ice covered ship.

One crew member who was located walking near the ship, Luis Posada, a 60-year-old native of Columbia, who identified himself as the ship's radio operator claimed that "for me it was no trouble." The ship's trouble, he said, was the result of its faulty boiles. "If the ship's boilers were made in the U. S. I know we would have no troubles," he said.

Insurance records obtained from Lloyds of London, indicate that the ship's boiler had repeatedly caused trouble. In the 16 recorded accidents since 1964, half involved the boiler.

In 1971 the ship drifted for seven days after a condenser failed at sea. According to the insurance records the Jason has been in an accident with other ships twice, each time sustaining "light damage."

In 1973 it rammed a dock at Quebec and sustained some structural damage, according to the insurance report.

Yet for all its trouble and notoriety, the Coast Guard admits it has no idea who owns the ship. Its registered owners, according to Commander Sawyer, are known to the Coast Guard as only Astral Shipping Ltd. of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The Coast Guard has been dealing with the ship's registered agent in New York, a firm known as Avon Shipping and a local agent known as Lavino Shipping.

Asked who owned the ship, a man at Lavino's local office replied, "I don't have any - idea . . . I'm just here as a hired chauffeur and to keep the coffee hot, if you knoe what I mean."

Officials say the Golden Jason needs at least $500,000 in repairs before it can safely sail. The operators now must off-load the cargo, perhaps selling it to a local buyer, and watch the tanker be towed away as an unmanned barge.