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Pawleys Island: Navy vessel leaves questions in its wake

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Pawleys Island police are used to calls about mysterious lights. Mystery ships are another matter.

A naval vessel positioned off the coast of Georgetown County for two days last week drew questions from residents and brought Police Chief Mike Fanning on deck with his binoculars. It was the deck of the Pawleys Pier and he managed to snap a cellphone photo through the eyepiece. A post on Facebook asked if anyone could identify it.

There was no shortage of opinion. A destroyer. An auxiliary or supply ships. A research ship. One person identified it as one of the Lollipop class. “I hear they’re good ships,” he said.

There was speculation that it was an amphibious landing ship, with discussion about the finer points of its superstructure. Others thought it was a candidate to replace the Jet Ski in the police department fleet.

Fanning’s thoughts were that it was involved in some sort of training. “It seems like we get a call a week about lights over the ocean,” he said. Although those have been called UFOs, the Air Force says they are typically flares used in exercises.

His guess was confirmed, “unofficially,” by members of the state Department of Natural Resources and the Coast Guard. There were small boats known as “rigid inflatables” brought in to Georgetown that conducted training with the ship, Fanning was told.

“I never found out the name, though,” he said.

That part was easy. Marine Traffic maintains a website that tracks ship movements. It showed the N.S. Hugo stopped off the coast north of Winyah Bay last week. The site also lists the vessel, 180 feet long, as a “torpedo recovery vessel.”

The vessel shares its name with the hurricane that damaged Pawleys Island in September 1989. It was built in 1982 for use in the offshore oil industry and leased by the Navy. Beyond that, its history gets a little murky.

“We’re not really sure what’s going on with them out there,” said Lt. Brad Peifer, spokesman for Coast Guard Sector Charleston. The Navy doesn’t notify the Coast Guard or mariners of its operations, he said. He suggested the Navy Fleet Forces Command in Nofolk, Va., might help.

“That vessel doesn’t fall under our command,” Communications Specialist Reggie Buggs said in an e-mail. Try the Naval Sea Systems Command.

Not us, said a NAVSEA spokeswoman. It’s the Military Sealift Command.

“That’s not anything we do,” said an MSC spokeswoman after checking with operations staff. She noted that Marine Traffic has the Hugo in port at Morehead City, N.C.

“We can’t tell you anything about a Navy ship,” said Rex Edwards, port director at Morehead City. Told about the Navy’s lack of information, he laughed.

He said the Hugo makes regular calls at his port, which serves the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune.

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