The water was gin-clear, the sun cracking down 45 feet from the Caribbean Whitecaps to light the pirate fish, angel fish, groupers and blennies twitching through the coral heads, the sag and shove of the tide. Burt Webber decided to swim north with the $17,000 cesium magnetometer. It seeme like a good idea, but he was wrong. Then again, he'd been wrong for 17 years.

("I had the, ah, image... a lotta close friends and relatives, ah, it would be like Uncle Jake who looked for the gold mine and died thinking he was only one foot away...")

It was Nov. 27 that fine day -- seven months since Webber, 36, barrel-chested, blinking, had shivered through a rainy day in Maidstone Library in England, starting a the log of the H.M.S. Henry, triangulating the compass bearings, tensing dark lips as he studied the drawing of one tiny banana-curved piece of Silver Shoals, how it tallied with the aerial photographs.

Webber had left that library and bought himself a three-piece glen-plaid English suit, figuring he'd need it. Now 45 feet down he decided to kick north with the magnetometer. Then the frequency tone went erratic and the readout light started jumping by fives, tens, twenties, and Webber followed it south.

"Then I looked. I saw the Spanish ballast rocks in the coral -- see, the Spanish rocks were round, creek-bed stones, while the English ones were always chipped quarry stone -- and the pottery, the deck rings, iron spikes, whole clumps of them from when the timbers of the Concepcion rotted away, falling together... " And Webber's hand describes their slow, wild, fall as he lies on the bed in the midnight gloom of a New York hotel room, wild-eyed, scratching, grinning in that English glen-plaid suit.

On Nov. 27, Burt D. WebberJr., with a crew of 16, found the 1641 wreck of the Concepcion, a Spanish galleon loaded with Chinese porcelains, pieces of eight, doubloons, Aztecgold.

Unofficial early estimates put the worth of the Concepcion salvage at $40 million. The Dominican Republic will take half, the rest to be divided among Webber, his crew (historian, numismatist, cartographer, dive master technicians) and his backers, (a Chicago consortium called Sea Quest International). It may be the biggest undersea treasure haul in history.

"It was sort of ridiculous I hung on as long as I did," Webber says, smiling like a man who has everything, unless you count the gin-and-tonic that room service keeps not bringing.

"But if I were to quit, at my age, what could I do? I'd burned all my bridges. I'd worry about it, then I'd say look, you decided when you were a kid what kind of life you wanted... but I have four kids now, we're renting half a house in Annville (Pa.), I had to put up with the humiliation, with working in the brick factory."

All day, Webber has been wearing the suit: from one publisher to another, talking book deals; talking facts and photographs with magazine researchers; glory with television reporters; his wife with someone who wants to make a docu-drama fon TV; the producer of the "Today" Show (where he'll appear in less than eight hours).

They're al noted Webber's fierce, goofy grin, the eyes where white rings the pupils when he gets excited, his vocabulary sauced with "Darn!" and "Gosh!"

Webber is the son of a Buick dealer in Lebanon County, Pa. -- Amish country with the dour black buggies and the people who greet all statements of fact by saying Did you! does it!

"The neighbors always said "That Webber kid does peculiar things,'" Webber says, hands flying as if he's trying to describe something between an elephant and an explosion.

"I learned to swim in the millstream when I was 6. I dreamt about sunken ships and going oown and doing salvage. I saw a movie called 'UDT' -- you saw that movie. Did you! -- and decided I wanted to be a frogman. I was intrigued by the military aspects, I kept my room with everything just -- " And the hands frame squared-away symmetries while his eyebrows leap.

"The big thing in my life was that there was never enough excitement. I've always been a hyper person. I started diving when I was 16. When I was 17, I found five slot machines in the Millardsville quarry -- with money in the payoff tubes -- but none inside. I made the Reading Eagle with thatone."

A loner, skidding along the turtleba,d country roads in a collection of fast cars, wouldn't go to college like hes brother and sister -- but an asthmatic too, with "26 different allergies" he says, almost boasting.

And a lreamer: "I collected arrowheads. I wanted to find an Indian bruial ground more than just about anything," He"d lift an arrowhead from a furrow and know that he was the first person to touch it since the Indian who shot it -- that sense of the real past, an addiction he still can't explan.

A friend talked him out of joining the Nevy -- and he worried hes asthma would keep him from being a frogman. He went to a four-month diving school in Florida, finishing "secondhighest," hr volunteers, in a class of seven. He's a man whose biography is in order.

"I hooked up with Art McKee, who's the grand old man of salvaging. He runs the Museum of the Florida Keys. He specialized in the remnants of the 1733 fleet. I went with him to work on an 18th-century wreck suth of Jamaica -- I went down and realized that it was a sunken galleon man had not seen for ages. I felt a reverence for it, it was a time capsule, I could touch these things, pistols and daggers. Time began to have no meaning. One day, working with an air hose, I stayed down for 12 hours at 28 feet. I wasn't fatigued, I wasn't cold. And I knew I had to experience it again.

"The problem was, how to make a living at it? I figured the only way was to get lucky once and make it fast."

"The problem was, how to make a living at it? I figured the only way was to get lucky once and make it fast."

This was 17 years ago.

Once the decision for romance was made, it all became a practical agenda. "I could see that salvagers were like pirates. They all kick in a little equipment and go out looking -- no prey, no pay. They end up fighting. I knew it had to be done in a more businesslike way."

Webber decided to hunt for the legendary Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which foundered off the Marquesas Islands in a hurricane in 1922. He ignored the native stories and old books some treasure hunters go by. and researched ships' logs, survivors accounts, cargo manifests. He commuted between Pennsylvania and the Caribbean, scrounging backing, selling encyclopedias, working at odd jobs. One day in 1971, another salvager named Mel Fisher found the Atocha.

"I'd made a massive error," Webber says, planting his fist on his thigh, lifting his brows and shaking his head. "I was looking in the wrong place."

Not long after, an Islamorada. Fla., diver and numismatist named Jack Haskins told Webber about the Concepcion. It had sunk in 1641.

"It hit the coral heads at 8:30 that night," Webber says. "It was caught -- grinding and leaking all night. They pulled it off in the morning, but got trapped again. Then it went down."

It was a famous wreck even in those plunderous days. In 1687, an English expedition led by Sir William Phips, first royal governor of Massachusetts, recovered 32 tons of silver. But they couldn't get at the bulk of the treasure.

One of Phips' ships was named the Henry, and when Haskins found the Henry's log in England, through connections who thought he just might be interested, Webber met him there, on the second floor of the library in Kent County, shouting "Stop, stop!" as Haskins turned the pages, as if he couldn't savor them enough.

Webber had already hunted the Concepcion in 1977. Now he knew he had it. The English navigators had kept records which reduced the margin of error to mere hundreds of yards.

On Nov. 27, under 4-foot seas, with the sun floating down on all that coral silence of three centuries, Webber found it.

"Well, just a second here, let me check our logs," Webber says, leaping from his bed to rummage into a suitcase full of files. "I don't want to get that date wrong."

How could he forget?

"These are the pink triplicates of the log we kept," he says, shaking loose pages in the air, then scanning them with intense delight. "The 27th, right."

The pink triplicates are artifacts, of course, living history as much as the pieces of eight and porcelain cups and olive jars. It's as if he can't get enough of this time-stopped reality. And who among us can?