A piece of Navy history that has called Charleston Harbor home for decades has floated into uncertain waters.

The Clamagore, an iconic Cold War-era submarine that has been part of the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum's fleet since the 1980s, could disappear from the waterfront attraction. 

Though opinions about what should be done with the corroding vessel are divided, all have agreed that the ship needs attention, and it needs it soon. 

Recently, it looked like the submarine was on its way to the ocean floor, somewhere off the South Carolina coastline. It would be installed as an artificial reef and serve as a fishing ground.

The $2.7 million plan — which included the cost for environmental cleanup on the 74-year-old sub — made it into the state's annual budget this year, but Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed it, saying it wasn't a "proper use of the people’s money."

If state lawmakers don't override that decision, the Patriots Point Development Authority will have to go back to the drawing board, said Mac Burdette, the maritime museum's executive director.

Restoring the sub and keeping it on display would be a multimillion-dollar project, he said, and the total price tag has only climbed with each assessment — the latest of which was about $9.35 million.

Though a group of local submarine veterans has passionately advocated to save it, museum officials determined that the project wasn't worth the cost.

"It’s a bad investment," Burdette said. "I hate to look at it that way, but it is."

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The submarine Clamagore is docked near the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum on Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Mount Pleasant. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Fighting time

Decisions like these aren't unique to Patriots Point. World War II and Cold War-era vessels at museums across the country are fighting the elements, budget constraints and their own rising ages to, quite literally, stay afloat. 

There's the battleship Texas, a large warship that served in both World Wars, which is in danger of sinking in Houston. The hull of The Sullivans, a Fletcher-class destroyer which is displayed in Buffalo, N.Y., has sprung a serious leak. 

With each passing year these wartime vessels are becoming more costly to repair.

“The writing is on the wall for all of these old ships," said Joe Lombardi, the owner of Ocean Technical Services, a marine surveying and consulting company that has worked with numerous historic Navy vessels, including the Clamagore and the destroyer Laffey also at Patriots Point. 

The most recent cost estimate for restoration of the Clamagore, which Lombardi submitted to Patriots Point in late April, included a 10 percent contingency fund as well as everything from the cost to tow the sub to a shipyard to the expense of hydroblasting marine growth off its hull. 

That layer of oyster shells and other growth is so thick — about 4 to 6 inches, Lombardi estimates — that the force required to blast it off would also likely puncture holes in the vessel, requiring additional costly repairs. 

Patriots Point already plans to spend about $50 million on upkeep for the aircraft carrier Yorktown alone over the next 25 years, Burdette said. Over the next 100 years, they estimate it will take about $250 million to keep the ship in good condition. The museum is also still paying off the $13 million loan it took out to save the Laffey.

"It's just not another debt this agency needs to take on," Burdette said of the Clamagore. 

The cost to restore the submarine wouldn't be a one-time expense either, Burdette said. Like any other vessel, it would require more upkeep.

"You’re constantly fighting this battle that never will end, as long as she’s sitting in saltwater," he said. 

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The submarine Clamagore is docked near the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum on Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Mount Pleasant. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The 'Gray Ghost'

The Clamagore is the last of its kind. Made too late to serve in World War II, the 322-foot-long vessel was modified twice, the second time to become one of only nine submarines converted to the Guppy III configuration, the top-of-line upgrade for diesel-powered subs. 

Now, it's the only one of those nine remaining. 

Nicknamed the "Gray Ghost of the Florida Coast," the submarine served for 30 years, mostly operating in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. It officially joined Patriots Point's fleet in 1981, not long after after an agreement was drawn up between the Navy and the state of South Carolina. 

According to that contract, the state, by way of Patriots Point, would “make and keep the vessel safe and presentable for public exhibition and inspection.”

Tens of thousands of visitors have toured the vessel, about 30,000 each year. But those numbers represent a fraction of the total visitation at Patriots Point, where the Yorktown serves as the primary draw. 

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Still, many see sinking it for use as a reef to be a great loss for the museum and for the Charleston area, which is home to more submarine veterans that most other parts of the country. 

"I'm very passionate about this," said Thomas Lufkin, the chairman of the USS Clamagore Restoration and Maintenance Association. A submarine veteran himself, Lufkin used to give tours aboard the Clamagore.

The organization now has a lawsuit pending against Patriots Point and argues that the museum's obligations to the Navy would prohibit it from sinking the Clamagore. They've also said that Patriots Point's cost estimates for restoration are too high, predicting that the work could be done for a fraction of the cost.

Lufkin's group has questioned why the submarine wasn't better maintained over its first few decades at Patriots Point, well before the museum started looking for other locations to send it. That, Burdette said, is a "valid question." 

"That I can't say," he said. "But we're not trying to fool anyone with the numbers. They're real." 

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"I like the way things work," said David Stidham of Nashville, Ga., during his second visit aboard the Cold War-era submarine Clamagore on Thursday, May 30, 2019, at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Limited options

Patriots Point has been searching for a solution for the deteriorating sub since Burdette became director in 2010, he said. Now retiring in less than a month, Burdette has seen the possible outcomes for the Clamagore dwindle. 

Fundraising efforts never gained enough traction and attempts to find another museum to accept the Clamagore weren't successful. 

Most recently, plans were moving forward to transfer the submarine to the Key West-based company Artificial Reefs International to sink it off the Florida coastline. County officials in Palm Beach pledged funds to the project but the company never raised enough money for its share, and its contract with Patriots Point expired.

Now, Patriots Point has just three clear options, Lombardi said: reef it, restore it or scrap it. 

Any solution will require significant funds. Even choosing to scrap the vessel — which Patriots Point's board has no interest in doing, Burdette said — would require transporting the sub to Brownsville, Texas. The city near the Gulf of Mexico is the only place where the Pentagon's Navy ships are taken to be recycled. 

For now, Patriots Point is hoping to see McMaster's veto be overturned. Perhaps more importantly, though, they're hoping for a mild hurricane season.

With PCBs, asbestos and oil on board, the Clamagore is a "huge polluting liability," Lombardi said. If a strong hurricane were to hit, Lombardi said he's afraid the sub would be overturned, spilling harmful material into the harbor.

"That's really the worst-case scenario," Lombardi said. "With that you lose the ship, and you harm the area."

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.