Rapture of the Deep

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

As THE: WAHOO, A 55-FOOT RESWEARCH VESSEL OUTFITTED FOR scuba diving, slips its mooring in the dim light of a recent dawn on New York's Long Island, one of its passengers seems rapt in sea dreams of his own—living proof, perhaps, that there is destiny in a name. He is Robert Louis Stevenson III—a distant cousin of the writer, who had no children of his own—and his consuming passion is buried treasure.

Deeply buried, and damp besides. Rob Stevenson, 40, is one of America's most experienced practitioners of deep wreck diving—the salvaging of artifacts from ships that lie 100 feet or more underwater. "I am fascinated by shipwrecks," says Stevenson, who is manager of the bar at the Tucson Cafe, a popular restaurant in Greenwich, Conn., where he lives with his wife, Sheila, 36, and stepdaughter, Devan, 10. "They've gone down as a result of some sort of disaster, which adds an element of human tragedy, and the wrecks themselves are beautiful and mysterious, like underwater museums."

Unlike most museums, though, they can be dangerous. Seven people have died after losing their way in the sill-filled chambers of the Wahoo's destination, the U.S.S. San Diego, a battleship sunk in 1918 by the Germans in 130 feet of water off nearby Fire Island. In fact fatalities in dives of 100 feel and greater are so numerous—at least 18 were recorded in the first months of this year—that many scuba experts are alarmed at the increasing number of recreational divers who are trying this sport without adequate training.

Stevenson himself nearly became a statistic last July while diving one of the most spectacular—and treacherous—wrecks of all: the Andrea Doria. The Italian luxury liner, which collided with the Swedish ship Stockholm in 1956 and now lies off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., in 254 feet of water, is filled with china, silverware and artwork commissioned especially for the vessel.

Although he had been diving the Andrea Doria for three summers, on this day he got lost in the maze of stairwells connecting its 10 decks. "I was shocked to find myself in an unfamiliar rusted-steel compartment," he says. "I felt desperate to find a way out, and also remorseful. My wife was pregnant, and I thought, 'My God, am I about to make her a widow?' " Stevenson and his dive partner, fighting off the dizzying, almost drunken effects of nitrogen narcosis, which is caused by breathing compressed air at extreme depths, arrived at the surface with no air left in their tanks.

Stevenson got a taste of his sport as a boy growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where his mother was a high school English teacher and his father, KLS 11, an interior designer. Rob and his younger brother, Jeff, used to go skin diving in the lake across the street from their home. Stevenson went on to prep school in Massachusetts and then to the University of Iowa, where he studied Knglish and writing. After a first marriage to his college sweetheart broke up in 1981, Stevenson found himself in search of "a place to start my life over again" and moved to Greenwich. In 1987 he met Sheila, a school registrar, when she came into his restaurant. "I had just ended a five-year relationship the week before," he recalls, "but I took one look at her and thought, 'I'd better bury my emotions and see if something could happen here.' " It did, and they married two years later. By that time, Sheila had already resigned herself to life with a thrill seeker: On their third date he took her rock climbing.

Stevenson has some remarkable mementos to show for his dives: gold-leaf china etched with the word ITALIA, silver chalices and fine crystal, all of which he recovered from the foyer deck of the Andrea Dorla. He keeps most of it locked up—the plates are worth somewhere between $300 and $1,500 each—displaying only one broken dish over his mantel. Sheila is having a baby girl this month, and Stevenson plans to slow down his diving and devote himself to writing (he is working on a thriller involving divers and gold doubloons) and his homelife. "I see myself becoming more of a family man." he says. "That's where my heart is, more and more."

But RLS III is also stuck with his sea dreams. After his narrow escape from the, Andrea Doria, Sheila recalls, "he was very shaken up. He said, 'I'm never going to go in there again, I just won't.' " Sheila laughs: "He's already made two dates to go back next summer."

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