It is hard to find anyone to say a good word about the Maritime Administration.

"I've never seen anything so astray," said Jesse M. Calhoon, president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association. "The whole maritime industry tries to avoid the goddamn thing. Nobody gets an answer to anything. I don't see any need for it."

"They seem content to preside over the demise of the industry," said Jed Babbin of the Shipbuilders Council of America.

"I think it's a wasted bureaucracy," said Harlan K. Ullman of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "What the hell do they do? A deputy assistant secretary could hand out the operating subsidies."

Even congressional supporters have turned cool toward the agency. "I just can't help wondering what kind of management we've had in that place," said Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.).

MarAd, as its followers call it, is something of an orphan agency, having been shunted from the Commerce Department to the Transportation Department in 1981. It is charged with promoting the U.S. merchant marine, a cheerleading role that detractors say often clouds its judgment in distributing federal subsidies.

Critics view the $430 million agency as an anachronism. About 100 of its 1,000 employes still prepare studies on construction differential subsidies, a program the Reagan administration suspended in 1981. And while unemployment is mounting among seafaring unions, MarAd still runs a merchant marine training academy at Kings Point, N.Y., whose 1,000 students are nominated by members of Congress.

Harold E. Shear served as a lightning rod for criticism during his four years as President Reagan's maritime chief. The former Navy admiral, who openly criticized the subsidy programs he administered, has been blamed for some of the shipping defaults that have rocked the agency.

Shear resigned abruptly on May 31, telling Reagan he had done "everything in my power to reverse the steady decline of the merchant fleet and to restore it as a viable national asset."

Industry officials complained about Shear in unusually personal terms. "He didn't understand the job," Calhoon said. "He knew nothing about the industry," Babbin agreed.

The maritime agency has grown defensive under the mounting criticism, and did not bother to announce Shear's departure. Shear refused requests for interviews, as has his acting successor, Garrett E. Brown Jr., and the agency has provided only written answers to press inquiries. The Transportation Department also refused to make a maritime expert available.

Nevertheless, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole says she has made progress in deregulating the industry. She cited a 1984 law that eased antitrust restrictions on U.S. ship lines, allowing them to cooperate in setting rates and dividing up routes.

While operating subsidies for U.S. shipping firms have continued to rise, Dole noted that "these are for the most part 20-year contracts." She said existing contracts will be honored, but that "there will be no new operating differential subsidies."

Dole also disclosed that John Gaughan, deputy transportation secretary for intergovernmental affairs, will soon be grappling with these problems when he is named as the new head of the Maritime Administration.