To Steep, perchance to steam. Aye, there's the rub a dub dub. Whether 'tis nobler to tank or to tub. That is perplexing. There are 2,000 tubbers in the naked city, with a mobile hot tub and several public bath houses to oblige them. For tankers it's tougher, so the aquanauts are few -- just one sensory deprivation tank in town for those who'd rather think than swim. Making Waves, an immaculate new tubbery at 400 Seventh Street, is serving coffee today to all those who seek ablution for their sins of the night before. And there are champagne bubblers to bring in '82 with roiling wet fury. Bring the extended family. They'll fit right in. One Sunday, 40 showed for a group soak, says owner/founder/sculptor Eric Rudd, though usual party sizes vary from a menage a trois -- a woman, two men and a basket of strawberries -- to the spillover from a come-as-you-were party; the past- lifers tossed flowers and wore flowing Hare Krishna robes. One chilly eve, 14 of the wet set belly up to Waves' blond bar to book a bath. Manager Dennis Dix, late of the Soak, a hot tub and dinner club in Santa Fe, takes charge cards and passes out Prussian blue towels. The bathers, who've come from D.C. Space, peruse the cookie and juice display -- Ginseng Rush, carbonated grapefruit pop, apple smash and Ramlosa mineral water. "Washington is getting into fruit juice and reincarnation," says Anthony Ruddy, one of Waves' five owners, who tastes some canned carrot juice, explaining that the stuff is fruitless. "In 24 hours of canning, it loses its vitamins and minerals." Once he drank so much he turned orange. That was in Colorado. Three architects and a holistic masseuse come up from the downstairs tubs, liberals limp. Serious soakers, they have "done the tubs" in all the right places: Stowe, Boulder, anywhere in northern California. Beth McKee, the masseuse, says the four of them (Janet Shure, Paul Froncek and Neil Sumner) are looking for a wine vat for backyard baths. "We're just stressed out normally," explains Froncek, "so we really need this." Proponents of the soak-as-God-made-you set, they complain that the acrylic tubs are a sight tough on the backside. Ruddy explains, in careful Californese, that the acrylic is easier to clean than wood and he and his four partners want an image so clean it squeaks. "The Hyatt of hot tubs," adds Rudd. At Waves, the tubs, brown and shiny, fit a dozen in a squeeze, though eight to ten is more comfortable. There are eight tubs mounted in redwood decking. One is couple- sized, and a board room for business conferences in the wet holds up to 24. A Georgetown room with brass and ferns is planned. Rooms, which rent for $5 the first half- hour and $4 thereafter, are private with locking doors. Water temperature, just right at 103o Farenheit, is monitored on a digital thermometer/clock, and there is a phone for placing room-service orders. An open shower and clothing rack complete the decor. Organic soap, which smells like Pepsodent, is available. Tech rock pulses like a quasar. Sometimes there is classical or jazz, with a control panel for tuning out or turning on. And the lighting is adjustable, from romantic gloom to operating room. Swimsuits may be worn, but Ruddy believes nude tubbing is more appropriate. "If you don't take your clothes off, it's embarrassing," he says. A small changing room is available for those too shy for simmering in the flesh. Six adjustable high-speed jets and a super bubbler keep the water roiling, so soakers are less exposed than they'd think they'd be. But don't expect to sit shyly underwater for the en temperatures of 106. Alas, one California couple overstayed. A mellow way to go. Mellow is the meaning of tubbing. "It is the most relaxing social environment you can set up. A long time ago, water was a social way to connect, a real nice kind of transference," says Ruddy, who thinks people ought to take the step back to communal bathing. "It brings you out," he says. "It takes people beyond their limitations." Release and relax. Become one with bouillabaisse. Lance Adel, nee Robert John Landseadel III, says it helps him sing like a bird. Adel, a member of the ''Jacque Brel Is Alive and Well" cast, tubs "after getting so up and pulling from the audience. When they react it gives you a volt. You don't sing the words, you bite them. It hits the soul." He compares hot tubbing to "Jacques Brel": "People come back four, six, 50 times." Return dippers, word of mouth, whatever, Waves has been an instant smash. Eric Rudd, who says he's better known for hot tubs after a few weeks than for his 15 years of sculpting, always knew it would work. And he thinks it will be more than an overnight stand. When doubters asked who would come, Rudd knew: "Your average liberal couple. Those people who line up around the block to see Woody Allen movies." "It's part and parcel of Washington's new image," says Ruddy. "People are sick of their trenchcoats and so am I." Better ten years and two months late than never. It signals a rebirth for downtown, he adds. Born-again bathers find no better place for getting back to basics than the tubs. "Rebirthing is a relaxation technique where the main thing going on is breathing. Now they call it dry rebirthing," says Frederic Kleiner, psychotherapist and ex-tanker. "After learning dry methods, you can use a hot tub or a bathtub with a snorkel. This is called wet rebirthing." For tankers, it's tougher, so the aquanauts are few: One sensory deprivation tank rents to those who'd rather think than swim. The tanks are "more akin to meditation. You sort of watch your mind work and get to places from there. People who work in the tank don't want much input. They're into working on themselves. I'd debrief them after they came out." says Kleiner, who sold his tank to a couple in Reston, who sold it to Charles Stinson, tap dancer and hair dresser. Contrary to what psychotherapists say, "I've rebirthed myself in here for two hours." says Stinson, who rents his "tranquility tank" for $25 the first hour and $20 ever after. The tank is in a bright and airy room above his beauty salon at Calvert and Connecticut Avenue. A male torso with soda bottle is engarde beside the peach-colored tank, a long, low-slung affair, like a house for giraffes that sleep with their feet in the air. Can too much deprivation make a tanker go ape, like William Hurt in "Altered States?" No real-life tanker has ever made a meal of zoo gazelle. Hallucinations, sometimes vividly erotic, however, are common. After floating in the salty, warm water for over an hour, Stinson saw a brillant light. "If there are angels or life after death, this was it. The most incredible feeling of --" he searches for the words "-- of love . . . joy, a wonderful, wonderful feeling. A total love experience. Bliss, that's it." But even one mosquito bite can leave you blissless. Can'tankerous. The stings of saline solution inhibit the meditative state. Cuts must be coated with Vaseline before entering the slippery, body-temperature liquid. Inside, floating with your arms back, palms beside the ears, there is no gravity. No touch, no light, no sound -- except for high- pitched sirens. time I was in there . . . because I'm crazy," she says. "Being a kind of heavy experience, there should be someone around who understands human behavior, not in terms of freaking out, but in terms of sharing the experience. You have to work on things in there . . . realize that you're not going to drown, unless you want to. In Denver, where I tried the tank for the first time, I had almost drowned a week before, so I dealt a lot with that, working through the discomfort and fear of water. And I was also dealing with my fear of being alone." Says self-assured tanker Jeffrey Humber, "If you can go off by yourself in the woods and camp and don't mind being alone, there'll be no problem." Humber has been working seven-day weeks for an economic consulting firm since July, which builds tension like nobody's business. He lies in the tank at the Charles the First Salon for one hour a week. It's the equivalent of a week's vacation, says Humber, it's truly getting away from it all. "I feel relaxed, have a perspective." Humber, who's done TM and est, followed in his sister's wake. While studying in India under the nonpsychedelic swami Rajnis, she tried a tank. Then Humber took the plunge. "You lie down and start to float, waiting for the waves to stop. Then it takes five or ten minutes for your mind to turn off. It's funny, you start hearing noises in the back of your mind. All the screams you didn't scream. After 40 minutes, that stops and you have 20 minutes of peace. It's not nirvana. It isn't a mystical experience. It's just very relaxing and when you get out you have wobbly knees." Trassle, however, says "It's an emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual trip." She gets "in touch with my inner voices, which is hard to do in the city." It's not erotic, but sensual, she says, like having a massage. What's more, says the ever-buoyant Stinson, "It slows the aging process -- no gravity. And it's impossible to have a negative thought in there. If you have created a downer in the body, like jet lag, you come out of there with a real natural high." If all this is too new wave: HOME SWEET HOME offers the mobile hot tub, an 8f x 14f redwood deck, inset with a wooden tub that's six feet in diameter and three feet deep, on wheels. It rents by the 48 hours, complete with your champagne bubbler or supercharger, for a minimum of $240, says part-owner Jerry Culinane. Little, two- person mobile tubs of acrylic are filling in for the popular port-o-tub, which is often booked up. ''Yeah, I'm a tubber," says Culinane, who has badges for hot-tub sports such as breath-holding. "Anything you can do in a pool you can do in a tub," says the former skin diver, whose discretion prohibits him from explaining further. Farther out, but more suburban? In Ellicott City on U.S. 40, you'll find SUN SPA, a new hot-tub-and-tanning center. One person can have a private room for $10, two to three costs $7 each and for from four to six persons, $6 apiece per hour. Tanning is $7 per session -- a costly proposition for the fair-skinned who can stay in for only five minutes the first few times. And then there's, the football widow's special from 1 to 7 on Sunday: "If she can get her husband to come, he gets in for half price," says Bill Schoenfelder, one of the owners. Friday is couples night, a tub for two for $10, and Saturday, there's the tub- full special -- all you can squeeze in for $20.