Capt. George Papanicolaou stared at a cabled message at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in a sullen office of the Davies Marine Agencies operations office next to Alcho Tower.

A big man, clad in blue jeans, an open green khaki shirt and T-shirt, his expression remained unchanged, but he seemed to shake off some of the tension. One seaman was dead, the cable read, and 38 were alive from the vessel he administered as its port captain.

Papanicolaou, a Greek who is employed by Groton Pacific Carriers, Inc., lives in New York with his wife and children. He had arrived in Honolulu earlier this week for what he called a routine inspection of two of the three ships his company operates and manages.

Now one of them was burning on the high seas, a contender for the distinction of spilling more oil into the sea than any other in history.

Mrs. Papanicolaou, her face reflecting the sorrow and tension, sat in one corner of the Davies office. Her husband, who flies here every two or three months to inspect his ships, had brought her this time for a vacation.

It was her first trip, and she had spent the last two days living with a calamity.

Most of the 39 men aboard the Hawaiian Patriot were Greeks, including the captain, John Glykas. Three men aboard were from Colombia, said Papanicolaou, employed as mess men and wipers.

The Hawaiian Patroit was a good ship, Papanicolaou insisted, with amenities one would expect on a passenger liner instead of a tanker. She was not a rusty, tired vessel.

"The next dry dock schedule was in another six or seven months," he said in clear, proper English. "My visit was to look at the stores, the equipment, the manning. This time we were to have Coast Guard inspections, too."

Papanicolaou was a master aboard oil tankers for 11 years, he said, before he settled into a less roving life.

"Five minutes before the explosion this morning, I was talking to [the captain]. It was 10:25 a.m. and everything was fine. There was no danger at all, he said. Then, at 10:30 a.m., the explosion."

The ship had developed to crack, then apparently lost a large section of steel plating in moderately poor weather. The winds were blowing 20 to 25 knots, the seas running at 5 to 8 feet, nothing significant for a supertanker.

"The ship has performed perfectly since we bought her," said Papanicolaou. "It came to Hawaii every 35 days from Indonesia. We never had any accident aboard whatsoever.

"The Hawaiian Patriot had first-run movies and a theater for the crew. It had a swimming pool, TV sets, a full library, he said.

But the ship was gone, and Papanicolaou, who had been making arrangements for a Coast Guard inspection, was not trying to find hotel rooms in Honolulu for 38 survivors.