Through the first eight months of the year the Virginia Port Authority has been unable to shake its split personality - terrific on general cargo, trouble on breakbulk.

General cargo was up 18.7 percent through August, John Covaney, the port's senior managing director of marketing services, said this week at the first VPA board meeting to be held at the state's Front Royal, Va., inland port.Bolstered by a 23 percent increase in container traffic, volume for the January through August period was 6.12 million tons compared to 5.15 million tons in 1994, the marketing director said.

That's the good news.

"There are some signs we have to make some improvements, and that's in the area of breakbulk," Mr. Covaney said. That cargo niche is down 13.5 percent due to market conditions for cocoa beans and some other commodities, he said.

Container trade accounts for the vast majority of the VPA's traffic, representing 85 percent of overall volume. Breakbulk constitutes a portion of the remainder. But breakbulk cargo is important as a labor-intensive business that generates substantial working hours for the port's International Longshoremen's Association members.

VPA marketing officials have embarked on a campaign for the rest of this year to "broaden our base" in the breakbulk trades, Mr. Covaney said.

The port's business development group is tracking all breakbulk commodities traded in and out of U.S. East Coast ports to see which ones are compatible with VPA handling facilities, he said. By mid-October, the group expects to have a short list of "commodities to peruse."

Joseph Dorto, general manager at Virginia International Terminals Inc., VPA's operating arm, recently commented that poultry, export steel and paper loom as attractive breakbulk items.

In other business, the VPA board authorized the purchase of three rubber- tire gantry cranes to be used at Norfolk International Terminals to improve intermodal container handling operations.

It also authorized the procurement of two container cranes for NIT. The cranes presently are on offer in the market and are needed to meet existing loading requirements, said J. Robert Bray, VPA director. He said they could be installed within an 11- to 15-month time period.

The port plans to file an application at the Commerce Department to expand its Foreign Trade Zone.