For Five weeks and 500 miles, we sailed the Chesapeake Bay, lurching through squalls and gliding timelessly along gentle channels in search of the answers this ancient path to the sea might provide to the essential question: Is the bay dying?

In countless different ways, sometimes in a whisper, at times shouting, the bay responded. No, it is not dying. There are cycles to all great things of nature, and for the Chesapeake, the nation's largest estuary, this appears to be a period of relative resurgence and health.

Man has tampered with the bay. He has constructed massive steel and chemical plants along its source rivers and tributaries, released sewage and fertilizers and even radioactive materials into those same avenues, made it an expressway for oil tankers and cargo ships and used it as a playground for hundreds of thousands of other vessels.

Still, as we learned in our waterborne journey, the Chesapeake has proved surprisingly resilient to most of man's excesses. Flushed and reinvigorated by a constant exchange of ocean and fresh water, it has so far at least taken care of the environmentalists' bumper-sticker plea to "Save The Bay" by saving itself.

As Eugene Croninin, director of the Chesapeake Bay Consortium, which oversees university research on the estuary has said: "It is very tough. It's just amazing how fast and completely the bay can come back."

Indeed, the bay we saw from the water for 38 days in the summer of 1980 defied almost all the preconceptions we had long held as Washington-based landlubbers who had viewed it only from the shore.

Before our venture began, we had seen and heard about the manufacturing plants along the bay near Baltimore and Norfolk and had assumed that there would be visible signs of industrial pollution out on the waters. To our surprise we found that pollution, in the usual sense of foul-smelling and discolored water, doesn't exist on most of the bay.

Similarly, our notions about shoreline development and marine traffic (that the bay was being inalterably changed by too much of both) were contradicted by what we saw from the water -- a coastline largely undeveloped and a bay so empty at times that the cabin lights of watermen's work boats moving slowly in the dark distance evoked a haunting sense of loneliness.

Above all, we learned that the 190-mile long bay is big enough for just about everyone and everything. Based on the vitality of the estuary itself, it supports an incredible variety of occupations and life styles, all enduring and defying the homogenization that lends a crushing sameness to nearby cities and suburbia.

The bay begins as an extension of the Susquehanna River, narrow enough to see both sides, and ends as an island sea where water alone shapes the horizon. Our voyage began in the middle, just below the Bay Bridge on the western shore. We cruised up, down and across the bay several times before we were through.

The myth of marine congestion was the first to be shattered soon after our Sunday departure in late June from Whitehall Creek just north of Annapolis.

Above the Bay Bridge, the sail-to-sail scene we had just witnessed virtually vanished. Even below the bridge, the congestion is largely limited to weekends, and further down, the bay isn't crowded even then. On a bright breezy Sunday, sailing some 40 miles from Reedville, at the end of Virginia's Northern Neck where the Potomac enters the bay, we saw hardly a boat before we entered the mouth of the Patuxent River on Maryland's western shore.

Where, then, is the Chesapeake Bay boat explosion that should result from registration figure of 132,000 crafts in Maryland alone? In the marinas, we discovered, docked for the duration of the work week and even, it seems, most weekends.

Sailing and motoring the length and breadth of the bay in our chartered 44-foot ketch also dispelled any notions of a population explosion. For the most part, the shoreline remains except by the eroding forces of the undisturbed bay itself.

The pristine panorama makes the jagged industrial skyline of Sparrow's Point, near Baltimore, seem out of place. The Steuart Petroleum Company's off-shore liquified natural gas dock near Cove Point is another aberration, looking from the water like a scene from the movie, "Star Wars."

Near the head of the bay, the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds provides a military buffer against building for some 30 miles of western shoreline. Further south, the steady advance of Baltimore and Washington suburbs has yet to reach the Chesapeake shores.

Across the bay, on the Eastern Shore, lack of population pressures and, in Talbot County, vigorous opposition to any development by the local gentry, help maintain the status quo. The most recent census figures show all but one Eastern Shore county actually losing population. The lone exception, Queen Anne's, is best known to Washingtonians as the eastern end of the Bay Bridge, a place where shopping centers have spring up along U.S. Route 50 largely to accommodate the through traffic.

It is the Bay Bridge, in fact, that has helped preserve the slow-paced way of life on the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore, even as it speeds city folk to the Atlantic. While spurring the madness of Ocean City high rises, the Bay Bridge, built 25 years ago, left virtual ghost resorts on the bay itself. bToday, ocean-bound motorists speed across the Eastern Shore's flat farmland, oblivious of private peninsulas and quiet coves that exist just miles from the highway.

The view of the shore from the water, we learned, is just dramatically different.

Crisfield, for example, is a depressing sight from land, its retail shopping district half closed down. From the water, it bustles with watermen bringing their day's catch to a dozen seafood packing companies that line Somer's Cove.

A water perspective proved essential, we found, to both report and photograph the bay. Adolph Pretzler, the reclusive owner of Cape Centaur, a Talbot County estate on the Miles River, turned us away at his gatehouse. aWhen we approached him the following day by boat, he chatted cordially for several minutes when we went ashore.

On two other occasions, Washington Post photographer James Thresher treaded water in a wetsuit and fins to capture on film a crab's eye view of watermen at work.

Water time, we also learned, is different from land time. In our experience, a distance that would require just a few hours driving on land could mean as much as two days of travel time on water. It is a pace that is intensely frustrating to a daily journalist trained to get the story not only first but fastest.

Maritime journalism, a visitor to our boat correctly noted, defies all journalistic conventions, ultimately, there was nothing to do but change our kinesthetic clocks to water time. Editors and others on shore, however, were locked into land time. Sometimes we could reconcile the two, sometimes we couldn't.

Reconciling the two time zones sometimes required writing while underway from place to place. This meant working below but seeing very little of the passing scene. Write more about what you see, the editors said. l

On one occasion, an editor requested a story by 6 p.m. but on a day when we were crossing the bay. The water was very choppy, making it impossible to write without getting seasick. The story was done, but not until hours after we'd reached land.

One Saturday night, to call in a story, I rowed a rubber dinghy half a mile against a strong current, tied up at somebody's dock and borrowed a stranger's phone.

It was not always convenient to call the office from the water. This circumstance dictated a detachment that is difficult for landlubbers to comprehend. At times, there was the unsettling sense of being disconnected, afloat without anchor from the world we knew best.

There were times, too, when the disconnection gave us a refreshing reprieve from the rush of daily events. The Republican National Convention, for example, was half over before we remembered it was happening, so absorbed in the bay and so beyond the reception range of radio and television were we.

Similarly, news of the deposed shah's death reached us nearly a day later after I had brought the dinghy across a choppy channel to a marina to call The Post.

One news story that did not escape our notice was the hot summer of 1980. On Chesapeake Bay, fish died from lack of oxygen, creating a stench in the stagnant waters of Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and across the bay in the rivers of the western shore.

On the other hand, the bay was jammed with jellyfish for whom the lack of fresh rainwater meant a greater salt content, to them a bonus. The translucent creatures have an esthetic appearance that belies their poisonous nature. As we found out, along with generations of watermen, they get on anchors as well as in crabpots, and they sting.

Almost always it is cooler on water than on land. But when the temperature hit 101 in Cambridge, the broad Choptank River offered little relief.

July on the bay features a sound-and-light show with afternoon regularity. Usually, these thunder and lightning storms are short and violent and often localized in character. To know the bay, however, it is necessary to experience at least one severe summer storm. We were in two.

The first fell on us shortly after we docked in the fishing village of Rock Hall. It rolled over from the western shore where we learned from our marine radio the dangers of dallying on the water. Frantic voices sounded, "May Day," distress calls. There were radio reports of three persons missing and of a "possible heart attack victim in a blue sailboat."

In the middle of the storm, another sailboat entered Rock Hall harbor, its crew reporting a lost dinghy, a bent rudder and running aground between Tochester and Swann Point. The skipper's first question: "Where's the bar?"

Thanks to John Chandler, our skilled skipper, we almost always managed to anchor or dock before the worst storms descended. The only exception came the day we delayed our departure, against his sound advice, from Cambridge on the Eastern Shore.

For a while, it appeared that we would miss most of it. As our ship headed out into the bay and then southward, we could see threatening thunderclouds to the north. Steering away from the ominous formations, we experienced only a rough ride as the winds whipped up the water, bringing the bow crashing down several times toward the surface. Urban cowboys on the Chesapeake, we took turns bouncing on the bowsprit.

We anchored in Mill Creek near Solomon's Island on Maryland's western shore just in time, as new anvil-shaped storm clouds burst into a wind and rainstorm that seemed never-ending. Awesome gusts of wind blew toward us with such force that the wind seemed to move with it.

Refueling nearby the next day, we saw trees toppled like toothpicks, boats sunk in marinas and roofs twisted and torn.

Storm damage was readily apparent around the bay. The damage allegedly wrought by man, in the form of pollution, was much less so.

In fact, we learned from scientists who have studied such things, the worst polluters on the Bay do not pollute the Bay. They pollute their immediate locales, to the dismay of nearby residents, but may barely touch the estuary.

The "worst" polluter on the Bay, as measured by industrial wastes discharged into the water, is Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. The company is now cleaning up, under a 1977 court agreement, but scientists and others who have sought to link the plant with baywide problems have been disappointed. Baltimore harbor is a natural sink that seems to keep the waste from spreading.

"I tried to go up to Sparrows Point and draw (on a map) heavy lines outward, linking the steel plant with some specific problem in the bay," said Dr. Court Stevenson, of the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratories. "I just didn't find them."

Nor is sewage from pleasure boats -- a problem which prompted the Coast Guard, this year to mandate new, improved marine toilets -- even mentioned by scientists as a significant factor in the Chesapeake's ecology.

What pollution exists is less noticeable, stemming from the building boom that occurred far from the bay's shores one to two decades ago. Such development dumped sediment -- chemically-infested and carried by rainwater -- into the tributaries and thence the bay itself. The sediment settled to the bottom but still stirs occasionally, robbing the estuary of life-supporting oxygen.

But the bay is not Lake Erie, a dead or rapidly dying body of water. It is changing but at the same time it is amazingly resilient. The bay grasses that provide a sanctuary for crabs, eels, oysters and freshwater-spawning fish declined in the 1960s, supposedly because of the sediment from building sites and herbicides from farms. Their decline provided a logical explanation for the species shifts on the bay, as oysters especially but also shad and rockfish catches dropped.

On the other hand, ocean-spawning bluefish and menhaden have thrived in the changed environment, and there is even a school of thought that blames the sharp oyster drop on overharvesting watermen. "When the men went off to fight World War II, the Oysters came back," says Court Stevenson.

There is, it seems, a kind of natural balance to the bay that incorporates the activities of man. Not everyone crabs, and even crabbers, when the price is down, turn to other pursuits. The many ways of making a living from the bay thus helps assure the survival of all.

They co-exist on the Chesapeake, but there is also a natural tension that goes with the territory. The scientists say the fishermen have taken their measuring meters to gain a cash reward. The crabbers blame the clammers for damaging the crab pots. The menhaden ship captains curse the pleasure boaters who unthinkingly get in their way.

And the pleasure boaters themselves frequently feud, as sailboat skippers steam at fast gas-powered "stinkpots" whose wakes turns calm waters choppy.

And so it goes on the Bay, where foreign seamen, freighter pilots, drawbridge operators, crab potters, oyster tongers, pickers, packers and shuckers, bunker (menhaden) undertakers, marine scientists, yacht crews, charter boat captains and even floating journalists make a living.

Somehow, the Bay provides.