ON BOARD THE SS ALBERT MAERSK - Just before dawn U.S. pilot John Beers took over control of this Danish vessel lugging containers of cargo from Singapore to New York.

Through a thin fog, he guided it off the tidal mudflats and into the navigation channel of the Panama Canal. As it cleared the Thatcher Ferry, a magnificent steel arch that links North and South America, the smell of tar and the putput of an approaching launch came in from Balboa docks at the Pacific Ocean end of the canal. Moment later, another pilot climbed up the side of the giant blue hull.

Together, John Beers and John Dickman started one of the most nerve-racking and proud jobs of the Panama Canal operations to thread, this brand-new, $35 million vessel through six narrow lock-chambers and a canyon of volcanic rock, cope with islands and currents in very close quarter and deliver it at the breakwater on the Atlantic side. All along they would command a network of boatswains, line-handlers, towboat masters and locomotive engineers.

Bith men have lost count of how many ships they have brough through, but with 12 years each on the waterway, they know its every measurement, tide and whim.

It is the training of men like Beers and Dickman, and the hundreds of other specialists who operate the waterway, that poses Panama's most serious challenge in preparing to take over the U.S. controlled canal by the year 2000.

Despite the countless differences at the negotiating table about the canal's future, Panamania and American officials have never diagreed on one crucial point: independent handling of canal operations by Panama is still a long way off. The draft treaty now awaiting ratification in both nations spells it out as 23 years. In an emergency, canal officials say, it would take at least a decade.

Panama blames this on traditional canal company policy to bar panamanians from key positions in management and operation. Qualified American officials recognize that there is some truth to that. But a good deal of the problem also lies in the irony that Panama, with an interoceanic trade route as its main resource and its very reason for being, has never fostered a maritime tradition of its own.

A forerunner in shipping politics, Panama became the first nation, in 1922, to rent its colors as a flag of convenience. The world's shipping register became crowded with Panamanian vessels. But Panamanians themselves rarely go to sea.

To become canal pilots, for example, Beers and Dickman had to be fully licensed ship's captains, which meant navigation experience of at least 10 years. It took them another decade as pilots on the canal before they were permitted to handle the largest class of ships. Of the 202 Panama Canal pilots, only 2 are Panamanians. Panama opened its first nautical elementary school, just two years ago. It is still far from training lockmasters, towboat captains or ship's engineers.

Over the years, the canal company has turned maintenance over to Panamanians - of 13,500 employees only 3,500 are U.S. nationals - but operation itself has remained largely in American hands.

How comples and critical this operational side is, becamed apparent - even to untrained eyes - as the Albert Maersk spent 10 hours transiting the 50 miles from Pacific to Atlantic waters.

To begin with, Capt. Tage Nelson had to surrender his ship's command. By U.S. law applied equally to traver-sing Chinese or Soviet vessels, the pilot must be given full control to protect both the ship and the waterway.

"It's the only place in the world where the pilot takes over." Beers explained with prided. "everywhere else, you're only an advisor. The only other occasion the pilot relieves the captain is the moment when the ship's bow crosses the still of a drydock."

Beers, a heavyset Bostonian of 48 who has traveled this route "well over a thousand times," said the question of authority is not always easy. "Every now and then I've had to put a foreigh captain straight on who's the boss.We can't take any gambling or guessingaround here. It may be the difference between sinking or not."

As Beers talked he stood high on the navigation bridge, rising 12 floors above the water level, but even so the stacks of containers prevented him from seeing the bow. There was none of the thumping and pitching a land-lubber associates with a freighter.Instead, with all the accoutrements of modern technology, it floated with the silence of a limousine. Some 60 flags, arranged like a well-composed wine cellar in neat pigeonholes, seemed the last leftover of a sailing age displaced by computers and radar.

As the first set of locks, at Miraflores loomed up, Beers began calling out cool, curt commands which were repeated by Capt. Nielsen. "Steady," "Stop Engine," "Thrust to Port," "Stop thrust." The first mate, in turn, phoned them down to the engine room where fuel was tationed to two boilers the size of an apartment house.

Pilot Dickman took up position on starboard with radio transmitters to instruct the men operating the locomotives, towboats and locks.It would not be an easy passage, he said. The Albert's beam measured 101 feet. With a lock width of 110 feet, there would be little room for mistakes.

With the locks only minutes away, a burst of activity flared up around the ship. A canal company launch delivered 20 line handlers loaded with heavy hawsers, who took up positions fore and aft. Then a towboat with a rubber covered nose began to nudge the Albert to line her up with the lock entrance. There was little the ship could do herself for the next hour.

A swift and complaint vessel on the high seas, it had become a clumsy and helpless giant [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] locks or tear open it's sides at the smallest error.

"If I had to stop her dead it would take a hundred feet," said Beers. But there weren't a hundred feet left between the ship's how and the "jaws," the name for the heavy concrete walls that give access to the locks.

As the ship started inching toward the first chamber, water spouted from the jaw walls onto the hull - " to make her slippery in case of impact," Dickman said. "And to reduce the heat."

On both sides of the bow, line-handlers threw their cables to four electric locomotives, the "mules," along the locks and Dickman radioed their drivers to start pulling. Pilots like to compare putting a ship into a lock with pushing a cork into a bottle . If there is no driving force, the pressure of the ship's displacement can push it back out again.

More cables went flying aft to two mules ready to braked the ship and hold it steady in the middle. Nevertheless, the hull kept veering awkwardly close to the concrete walls. Radio instructions from the ship were repeated over and over again.

As the hull lightly touched the wall, there was wrench from the locomotives and ships straightened again. "Dammint, those guys couldn't hear the radio," snapped Dickmans. "A little thing like that and something can really go wrong."

It took only eight minutes for the culverts in the floor and walls to fill up the chambers and push our 52,000 tons almost 30 feet up above sea level. Then the lock gates split open and swung back on the same bearings they were hinged on 63 years ago. Up in the lockhouse they like to boast that the only change made since the canal was built, is the chrome put on the brass valve handles so they no longer need polishing.

The first set of valves had closed and the Albert Maersk would have five more chambers to go. There would be 37 other ships passing before midnight.

It was in the Gaillard cut, right through the spine of the continental divide, that the sense of the magnum opus became strongest. On both sides rose the walls of the man-made canyon trapping the soggy jungle heat but once trapping many lives.

Almost lost in the rock wall stood a plaque devoted to the labor gangs who had drilled, hauled and blasted their way through the eight miles of solid basalt to dig the trench.

"This canal is a very beautiful thing," said Capt. Nielsen, offering ice water to combat the heat. "I first traveled through it in 1947, and I never had a spot of trouble. I can't forget, though, that there were separate water fountains then for whites and for the blacks who worked here."

In the narrow cut, traffic had become one way only and Beers lined up the bow to prepare for a sharp turn at Gamboa.

Now, they say, the job is falling behind by industry standards. The annual pay of $42,000 for a top pilot is no longer as good and the canal company has lowered qualifications to gain recruits. A master can become a top pilot after 9 1/2 years. The political uncertainty that has surrounded the future of the canal is causing a high turnover among specialists, including pilots, which worries company officials.

Beers is not sure if he is staying on himself. "I am not worried about losing my job, because we are indispensable. If something were to happen and we walked off. Panama would be in a terrible fix. They would get a few ships through, but the place would be wrecked in six months."

But like so many others working on the canal. Beers said the climate of uncertainty is affectiong his morale. The company training program at the moment is preparing some 12 new pilots for the job. The canal industrial training school has about 200 pupils, more than half of then citizens of Panama. But the company personnel office laments that Panama's population of 1.17 million does not offer a wide enough range of skills. To run the canal, the office says, it takes 1,754 different types of jobs.

On board the Albert Maersk, a strong breeze was coming in from the Atlantic after more than nine hours on the waterway. The ship had passed through six lock chambers and was showing thick black lines, like birthmarks, on its sides. It cost almost $25,000 in tolls, but if it had gone around Cape Horn it would have cost 10 more days and $150,000 in fuel alone.

As the pilots prepared to leave Capt. Nielsen turned on the radar getting ready for the open sea. Would it worry the captain if the canal passed into Panamanian hands."

"It's a beautiful thing, this canal," Nielsen repeated, "I can see why Panama wants it. But I don't care a damn who operates it, as long as the same high standards are maintained."