There have been great tales of whaling ships, ghost ships, death ships. But in all the lore of the sea, few ships have had as hapless a fate as the Aqualab - the half-sunken former U.S. Navy minesweeper that District officials seized last month and turned over to a salvage company for disposal.

She lies now in Maryland waters just off the Fort Washington Marina in Piscataway Creek, vandalized and scorned by the city, being stripped of the last of her valuable brass and machinery in preparation for her ultimate, ignominious demise.

"It's a shame," said Mike Freeman, who is somewhat of an old salt and one of the salvagers dismantling her. "I love the water. I hate to see a ship die . . ."

Freeman worked with John Fiocca, a salvage company owner whom the District hired for $4,250 to remove the Aqualab from D.C. waters and who also became the ship's owner under terms of his contract. Earlier, the city had tried to auction the ship, but only one man turned up at the sale - and declined to bid.

Freeman and Fiocca worked with special equipment and a team of divers through a week of savagely cold days and nights to raise the wooden-hulled, blue-and-white ship from a mudbank where it was partly submerged near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Then they towed it to Piscataway Creek.

City officials had seized the ship as abandoned property on Nov. 8, saying they could not locate the owner and that they were afraid the ship, which had been there a year, would break loose and damage the bridge or other vessels. The ship's master, William H. Dunham, was charged with 40 counts of failure to register the ship with the harbor master, abandonment of a sunken vessel and failure to display an anchor light.

Dunham, a former aeronautical and shy engineer who now works at various business enterprises, said yesterday that the city has harassed him over the Aqualab. He vowed to sue the city for deprivation of his civil rights. He also claimed that the ship was in Maryland - not D.C. - waters when it was seized and that therefore the city has acted illegally all along.

Fiocca, the salvage man, said he doesn't know exactly what he is going to do with the ship's remains. "I'll sell it to you," he said.

Freeman, an ex-U.S. Marine Corps frogman who owns a chain of local diving stores, seemed more positive. He said there is $20,000 in brass and equipment still abroad. He plans to sell the bulk of the brass to scrap metal dealers and special items such as brass portholes to interior decorators.

Minesweepers of the vintage - the Aqualab started out as the USS Goldfinch, commissioned in January, 1944 - had wooden hulls and fittings of brass, which does not attract magnets, so they would not activate mines.

Ultimately, the hull may be burned for the brass bolts in the deck, Freeman said. Or, he said, it may be sold to a real estate agent interested in turning it into an office on the Eastern Shore. Or . . .

But through all this, who has remembered the Goldfinch's proud history as a naval warship? Her happy days as a marine college research vessel? Her history was then marred by failure in the fishing business. A man died aboard her. There were perilous voyages. She sank and rose again. She ran aground several times.

Now she is dying.

The Goldfinch was built in Maine and departed Boston on her shakedown cruise Feb. 6, 1944, under the command of Lt. (j.g.) K. B. Roberts, according to a Navy spokesman. Then she reported to Bermuda for mine-sweeping duty.

The ship was reassigned to the Pacific in July, 1945, just a month before the war ended.She was based at Pearl Harbor for a time and returned to the East Coast in 1946, where she worked with the minesweeping force of the Atlantic Fleet.

"Her operations during the next years took her from Charleston to Panama City and Key West, Fla.," the Navy spokesman read from an offical history, "and occasionally as far north as . . . Newfoundland."

She was decommissioned Oct. 11, 1957, nd placed in a reserve fleet. On June 2, 1960, the Goldfinch was sold to the Southern Maine Vocational-Technical Institute, in Portland, for use in the marine and oceanographic studies department.

"I was a student here then and I know the vessel well," said Robert Goode, now chairman of the institute's Marine Sciences Department. He said the ship was used as a training vessel for oceanographic technicians-to-be.

"We had a lot of good times in it," he said. "We had it from here to Florida several times."

Then, for reasons that Goode said he couldn't recall clearly, the ship was sold to a lobstering company called Aqualab Offshore Fisheries in the early 1970s.

While Goode and others at the institute who had known the ship no longer sailed her, her comings and goings in the Portland area were part of the life of the community. Like a lost friend, they vaguely kept track of her. Goode knew that at one point a man was killed aboard her in a fire, but he didn't know the details.

When she left Portland for Washington in 1974, people were aware she had gone - but they weren't sure where.

Herbert C Nisbet, a Portland lawyer, said he was part of the group that bought the ship from the institute. "We were going (to use the ship for) deep sea lobstering but it didn't pan out," said Nisbet. "So we sold it to Bill Dunham."

Nisbet declined to discuss any further details of the story, and referred a reporter to Dunham, whom Nisbet called "a very, very nice man."

Dunham, 49, described himself in an interview yesterday as a long-time Washington resident whose training was in physics and who had for years worked on aeronautical and ship engineering for various government agencies.

Dunham said he quit that kind of work in 1965 and went into various business ventures. Sometime after 1970, he said, he joined a group here called Eastern Products International, Inc., that planned to import wood from Belize, formerly British Honduras, in Central America.

Dunham spent months looking for a ship and other necessary equipment, finally spotting an ad placed by Nisbet in a boat magazine offering the Aqualab for sale. Meantime, Dunham had met a couple of other entrepreneurs and formed Eastern Leasing, Inc. Eastern Leasing would obtain the ship to be used by Eastern Prodcts, he said.

In Portland, Dunham, in his capacity as president of Eastern Leasing, purchased Aqualab for about $50,000, according to his account and that of his lawyer here, Robert A. Klimek.

Dunham and several employees repaired the ship and sailed out of Portland for Washington sometime in August or September, 1974, he said.

It was a perilous voyage. They encountered stormy weather and continual mechanical breakdowns.About a month later, they docked at Alexandria on the Potomac.

At that point, Dunham said, the ship's sad history in this area began. Eventually, Alexandria officials forced Dunham to move the ship. He took it to D.C. waters.

"I got approval of the D.C. harbor master to anchor," he said. "The harbor master and I got along fine for a while. Then the river got to running high and she slipped her anchor . . ."

Eventually, the Aqualab ended up marooned in the mud near Wilson bridge - and thence, via legal proceedings, to Piscataway Creek.

Meanwhile, Dunham's business relationships crumbled. Eastern Leasing "fell flat on its face." The wood importing idea seemed to fade. Dunham lost track of most of the others who had been involved in these deals.

Still, he said, he continued to search for money to pay as much of the mortgage on the ship as he could. This was a matter of honor, he said, because Nisbet had signed the mortgage note and was responsible for it.

Dunham said he never claimed to be the ship's owner. He said he tried to resign as president of Eastern Leasing but could find "no one to resign to." The Delaware corporation became defunct when required paperwork was not filled, Klimek said. City officials said they sent an agent to Delaware but were never able to determine the ship's legal owner.

Dunham said he wants to sue the city. "I'm going to try to get the ship back for (Nisbet) or me or Eastern or whoever owns the thing," he said. ". . . If we accept this kind of crap (from the city) we're finished as a nation, as a people, as a society."

Dunham confirmed a few other sad details in the history of the Aqualab. It had once sunk at the dock in Portland, he said, because someone had inadvertently left the sea cocks open.

Another time it was stuck on a sandbar in Maine. And another time, Dunham said, a drunken man who had just had an argument with his wife went to sleep on the ship, dropped a lighted cigarette that caused a fire, and died of smoke inhalation.

"Nesbit said it was the best day of his life when the Aqualab got off the sandbar in Maine," said Klimek, the lawyer here. "It was his opinion that the ship was destined to go from one sandbar to another. I guess the last person that loved the ship was Bill Dunham. Everybody else got pretty much down on it . . ."