SO ROUTINE and yet so remote has death become in our 20th century society that is is with a start of horror tinged by recognition that we have taken in the shipwreck that claimed 11 lives in the close and familiar Chesapeake Bay. The 127-foot Coast Guard training ship Cuyahoga, heading toward the mouth of the Potomac in calm seas on a moonlit Friday evening, was somehow rammed and sent almost instantly to the bottom by the Santa Cruz II, a 520-foot coal-laden freighter from Argentina. The confusion leading up to the collision, the panic of the moment, the men thrashing in the water, the burial of the dead, the formal inquiry: These have seemed acts in a drama that has been reenacted countless times since men went down to sea.

In the specific, of course, there are a hundred questions. Was the Cuyahoga's age (51 years) or questionable (radar) equipment a factor? How was it that its radar operator was a young foreigner who spoke English poorly, that one 17-year-old lookout did not realize the lights he saw were the freighter's until it was almost upon him, and that the freighter's warning whistles were not heeded? Why was it that, at the last moment, the cutter signaled to turn right but actually turned left into the freighter's right of way? Why did the cutter then reverse its engines rather than keeping up the eight-knot speed that might have let it slip by? Was the complement of young sailors one would expect on a training ship adequately supervised? Are the rules governing ship traffic in the Chesapeake Bay suitable for the increasing congestion there?

We await the answers, with recommended remedies, that will come from the Coast Guard board of inquiry. Courtroom trials and a congressional investigation are also possible. Yet as always in accidents at sea, there are aspects of chance and judgment that cannot be explained, or at least anticipated in a foolproof way. In some environments the costs of misfortune are not always so deadly. In others (the air and, above all, the highways) they are deadlier by far, but there is not the same arresting sense of drama - or is it romance? In any case, man has been challenging the sea - and losing to it - for longer, by centuries, and it is in its nature to be unforgiving.