The irony of searching for a wooden civil War wreck within throwing distance of the world's largest aircraft carrier was momentarily lost on the divers. They were concentrating on jellyfish.

"It can be a bit of a sting when they drag their tentacles across your face," said Mike Law before he and another British Army diver dropped to the black bottom of Virginia's James River this weekend, hoping to stumble, across the rotted remains of the USS Cumberland, the first American ship ever sunk by an ironclad.

"The Cumberland put up a hell of a fight" said Clive Cussler, author of action novels and the financial angel behind this exploration. Cussler has spent $200,000 in the last three years trying to locate such notable nautical losers as the Bonhomme Richard, the ship that sank under the feet of John Paul Jones in the Revolutionary War, the remains of the Confederate Vessell Merrimac, the first ironclad steamship in the world and the Cumberland, which was the first warship the Merimac sank in 1862.

Most of Cussler's money came from the sale of his book, "Raise The Titanic," which was released as a movie this week. And all of the money, claims Cussler, has been well spent.

"The fascination for me is searching the unknown for a mystery," said Cussler, watching the divers disappear from the deck of a charter boat anchored off the giant shipyard here. "There is no greater unknown than the sea and no greater mystery than a lost ship."

Cussler, who produced television commercials for Budweiser and R C Cola before he raised his literary Titanic, formed the McLean-based National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), three years ago to look for the Bonhomme Richard off the northeast coast of England where it was lost more than 200 years ago.

He has searched for half a dozen other ships with varying success, and has attracted a respected number of marine archaeologists and technicians to his organization.

'Cussler thinks that by reviving some of our maritime heritage he can revive some of the John Paul Jones spirit this country needs now," says retired Admiral William Thompson, the president of NUMA's board. "It sounds naive, but he doesn't think so."

Also on the board of NUMA -- a name Cussler originally invented for the sea-diving hero of his books, are Peter Throckmorton, a nationally recognized marine archaeologist, and Dr. Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Edgerton, the inventor of stroboscopic photography and side-scan sonar, is now in Scotland looking for the Loch Ness monster.

"A lot of people have had ideas to do this kind of salvage work," said Adm. Thompson. "But unless you get a federal grant, you don't have the staying power."

Cussler proved his staying power during the summers of 1978 and 1979, when he unsuccessfully searched for the Bonhomme Richard off the coast of Britain. It cost Cussler $175,000 to learn an unwelcome lesson.

"I still don't know where it is, but I sure as hell know where it isn't," said the Colorado-based Cussler whose sun-browned body, salt-and-pepper beard and light blue eyes give him the look of a salty buccaneer.

This summer, however, Cussler and his rotating crew of about a dozen have claimed remarkable success. Two weeks ago divers found what they believe are the hulls of two Civil War ironclads, the Weehawken and the Keokuk, off the coast of Charleston, S.C.

Last weekend, Cussler's divers brought up 102 artifacts from what they say is the sunken wreckage of the Merrimac, blown up by the Confederates in 1862 to prevent its capture by the Yankees.

While the Merrimac's remains had been located by earlier salvagers, who marketed small pieces of the ship's metal hull as souvenir canes and paper weights, Cussler thought his relocation of the ship might trigger some of the same scientific fervor that greeted the discovery of the ironclad USS Monitor wreck in 1974. He is still hoping.

"Nobody gives a damn about the Merrimac," said Cussler. "You know how it is. Winners write the history books."

This weekend Cussler and his divers left the Merrimac to search for the Cumberland on the other side of the broad Hampton Roads harbor. A $50,000 proton magnometer and some sophisticated sonar equipment had located a bulge under 62 feet of James River that seemed to fit the 200-foot-long proportions of the Cumberland.

"It would be quite something to be the first person to touch the Cumberland since it was sunk by the Merrimac," said John Tyrie, one of three British Army divers who volunteered to spend the weekend looking for the lost ship.

With the British were two American divers from the Virginia Research Center in Williamsburg. All five divers have been working in the York River this summer exploring eight wrecks believed to be lost during the battle of Yorktown.

"We're going down to look for General Lee's credit cards," joked 37-year-old Jim Knickerbocker, waiting with the other Virginia diver, Mike Warner, for the English divers to have first shot at the wreck.

Cussler sat calmly beside a walkie-talkie and a Cumberland file in the deck of the 75-foot chartered yacht, while the two British divers descended from an 18-foot launch.

"I've been disappointed so many times," said Cussler explaining his reserve. "If they came up after th first dive and said we've got a wreck, I'd fall overboard with a cardiac arrest."

But when the divers surfaced after 25 minutes with news that they had indeed found a wreck, Cussler only squinted his eyes and fingered his beard.

After a lunch break, the two Americans took their underwater turn while Cussler, his wife Barbara and his 19-year-old son Dirk, waited in silence, rolling with the chop.

Forty minutes later Warner popped to the surface holding a jagged wafer of rusted metal. But almost immediately the British divers assisting from the launch gave a slow, thumbs-down signal.

"There's a wreck down there, but it's not the Cumberland," said Warner after coming aboard the charter boat. "It looks like a 20th-century coal barge."

"All we can do is try again," said Cussler, as the boat turned to take his family back to shore where they were scheduled to watch the Norfolk premier of "Raise the Titanic."

"It's like a slot machine. You hit the jackpot or you come up dry," said Cussler.

"There are a lot more exciting ways to spend money," added his wife, readjusting her sunglasses against the dying light.