Department of Defense

The submarine Daniel Webster, seen here in 1985, was spotted this week in Charleston Harbor.

Bill Williams knew what he was seeing, but what baffled the veteran mariner was what it was doing in Charleston Harbor.

Hundreds of feet long, the submarine bobbed near Fort Sumter surrounded by a slew of vessels.

The Coast Guard had established a 500-meter security zone around the craft, which had no identifying markings. Three tugboats surrounded it.

Williams had flown Army helicopters in Vietnam. Back then, the sub he was now seeing from a mile off was considered part of a new generation of the Navy's defense capabilities. These days, it is a piece of history, a reminder of another time.

Williams eased his 42-foot yacht into the Intracoastal Waterway on the East Cooper side of the harbor and called a friend.

"You see a lot of stuff going up and down the waterway," he said. "We just don't see subs anymore."

The Coast Guard had nothing to say publicly about the submarine and referred questions to Joint Base Charleston, where Air Force Lt. Susan Carlson solved the mystery.

The vessel Williams saw Monday was the guided missile submarine Daniel Webster, which was being towed to Virginia for a year of routine dry-dock maintenance, Carlson said.

The Daniel Webster is one of the two decommissioned subs moored at the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek that are used to train sailors in the operation of nuclear reactors and nuclear propulsion.

The sub was launched in 1963 and decommissioned in 1990. The ballistic missile sub Sam Rayburn also is used as a training vessel at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Unit.

In the mid-1980s, the Charleston Naval Base and the Charleston Naval Weapons Station were home ports to more submarines than any other base in the free world. In 1996, the Navy awarded a contract valued at more than $104 million to a Maryland firm for construction of a nuclear power training school at the weapons station in Goose Creek. The Navy in 1995 selected the weapons station as the site for the new school, and the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission later agreed.

A 1993 version of the BRAC had ordered the school to move from Orlando, Fla., to New London, Conn., but that decision was overturned. At the time, local officials and business leaders considered the school to be well-deserved mitigation for the Navy decision to close the Charleston Naval Base and shipyard.