Harold E. Shear, the crusty retired admiral who runs the Maritime Administration, often has sailed into heavy weather when he has tried to reconcile the administration's professed commitment to a strong merchant marine with its efforts to cut the cost of maritime programs.

But he drew only a few grumbles of protest when he informed the powerful House Merchant Marine subcommittee of the latest target of his fiscal torpedoes: the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y.

The academy trains men and women to become officers in the merchant marine. Like West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen, students at Kings Point receive a four-year college education at federal expense. Upon graduation, they receive commissions in the Naval Reserve and Coast Guard licenses as deck or engineering officers in the merchant fleet.

Unfortunately for them, however, the number of ships in the U.S. merchant fleet has been declining for years, and the size of the crews on many of the vessels that remain is also declining.

As a result, Shear told the subcommittee, there are "just not enough jobs at sea" for Kings Point graduates, especially since they have to compete for jobs with graduates of six state maritime academies, which MarAd also subsidizes.

So Shear said he is "arbitrarily reducing by 10 percent" the number of places for new students at Kings Point in the coming year. Up to now, Kings Point has been accepting about 350 new students a year.

Even with the proposed cuts, MarAd's fiscal 1984 budget request for Kings Point is $20.3 million. Another $10.7 million is programmed for financial aid to the state academies in California, Maine, Texas, Michigan, New York and Massachusetts.

These schools turn out a "very fine product," Shear told the subcommittee, but not so fine that MarAd was going to budget money to buy fuel oil for their training ships. The schools requested this money, and they were supported by Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee and a booster of the New York state maritime academy at Fort Schuyler. But Shear refused.

Shear, who is getting used to keelhaulings from congressional friends of the maritime industry, was less successful in trying to justify a $900 million ceiling on the popular ship construction loan guarantee program known as Title XI.

Members of Congress love this program, which provides federal insurance for loans from private lenders to finance construction of American-registered merchant ships in U.S. yards.

Several subcommittee members peppered Shear with questions about the ceiling. They wanted to know why the cap was imposed when the program does not cost the federal government.

Shear said he had been told by "economists," an apparent reference to the Office of Management and Budget, that it would be inflationary to go beyond a $900 million commitment. Asked what was inflationary about it, he said, "I'll have to defer to the economists on that."

Rep. Gene Snyder (R-Ky.), the ranking minority member, rolled his eyes skyward. "Admiral," he said, "you're my friend and I don't want to pick on you, but I don't understand this. Down where I come from, they would say you're caught between the dog and the fireplug."***

WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE? . . . . Former Transportation secretary Drew Lewis touched off a furor just before he left office by publishing proposed rules in the Federal Register that would allow tankers built with federal subsidies to reenter routes between domestic ports if they return the subsidy money.

The owners of unsubsidized tankers plying the domestic routes, from which the subsidized vessels are banned, cried foul. They complained in U.S. District Court that Lewis had bypassed MarAd, and they said the proposed rules are invalid because it is up to Maritime Administrator Shear to deal with maritime issues.

Nonsense, lawyers for DOT said in their response. MarAd is part of the Transportation Department (although only since 1981), and Shear reports to the secretary. Publication of the tanker rules, they said, was no different from the action of former secretary William T. Coleman Jr. when he bypassed the Federal Aviation Administration to decide whether the supersonic Concorde airliner should be allowed to land at Dulles International Airport.