The entire four-ship fleet of recently defunct American Cruise Lines could be for sale by early March if the two New England banks that have preferred mortgages on the four ships have their way in court.

Attorneys for the banks, who were to be in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Hartford on Jan. 31 seeking an exemption from automatic stay of ACL's assets, said they were optimistic that they could take possession of the ships because their claims each exceed the liquidation value that could be realized from any "quick, forced sale."

American Cruises initially filed for Chapter 7 reorganization in late fall before converting the filing to Chapter 11 liquidation in late December and the banks' claims against ACL exceed $19 million.

While lawyers for Connecticut Bank and Trust in Hartford and Fleet National Bank in Providence, R.I., said they hope to sell the ships within one to three months, they both acknowledged that any number of "hitches" might emerge to stall the projected sales because of the legal complications in any bankruptcy proceeding.

Lawyers for the banks said that the desired exemption from ACL's stay of assets would enable them to make a private sale or file for a public auction "as soon as possible" in the federal court jurisdictions where the vessels are currently being docked.

Attorney Barbara Katz of the Hartford-based firm of Schatz & Schatz Ribicoff & Katlin was seeking to take possession of the Charleston, the New Orleans and the America for the Connecticut Bank & Trust in Hartford. Katz said that the bank's claims against ACL total $13.2 million and that the value of the three ships falls short of that figure.

Attorney Howard Walker of Hinckley Allen Snyder & Comen in Providence, R.I., sought possession of the Savannah for Fleet National Bank in Providence and noted that Fleet National's claims against ACL exceed $6 million. Walker said that a one- to three-month time frame was "very realistic" if both banks were granted their motions this week.

The 132-passenger, 215-foot-long Charleston was built at the Chesapeake Shipyard in Salisbury, Md., in 1987 at a cost of $9.3 million and has four passenger decks, is 45-feet at beam and has a cruising speed of 14- to 16-knots. Katz said that the Charleston was currently being docked at Chesapeake Shipyard.

The five-year-old, 140-passenger New Orleans riverboat was also built at the Chesapeake Shipyard in Salisbury , Md., for $3.5 million, has four passenger decks, is 220-foot-long and 49-foot at beam, and has a cruising speed of 15-knots. Katz said that the New Orleans was currently docked at Steiner's Shipyard in Bayou LaBatre, Ala.

The 85-passenger, 100-ton America was built in 1982 at the Chesapeake Shipyard, was retired by ACL in October 1986, and had a market value of $830,000 in documents recently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The America is 174-foot-long, has three decks, is 37-feet at beam and has a cruising speed of 13 knots and Katz said she was presently being berthed at the Sunstate Marina in Green Cove Springs, Fla.

The 132-passenger, 215-foot-long Savannah has all-outside-cabins, was built at the Chesapeake Shipyard in Salisbury , Md., in 1984 at a cost of $4.2 million, has four passenger decks and a cruising speed of 14- to 16-knots. Walker said that the sister ship to the Charleston was currently being berthed at Chesapeake Shipyard.

Katz can be reached at Schatz & Schatz Ribicoff & Kotkin, 90 State House Square, Hartford, Conn. 06103-9302 or 203-522-3234. Walker of Attorney Michael Silverstein can be reached at Hinckley Allen Snyder & Comen, 1500 Fleet Center, Providence, R.I. 02903 or 401-274-2000.