|Frying Pan Shoals, NC|
Description: In 1784, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that levied a duty of six pence per ton on all vessels sailing up the Cape Fear River towards Wilmington. The collected money was intended for a lighthouse “at the extreme point of Bald-head or some other convenient place near the bar of said river, in order that vessels may be enabled thereby to avoid the great shoal called the Frying-Pan.”
The treacherous Frying Pan Shoals extend some eighteen miles southeast of Bald Head Island, and the first two lighthouses built on the island in 1794 and 1817 proved inadequate at marking the extremities of the shoals. The Lighthouse Board thus ordered the placement of a lightship on the shoal in 1854 and provided the following notice:
The vessel will carry two lights at an elevation of about 40 feet above the level of the sea, on her two masts—she will be painted yellow, as well as her lower masts, but with white topmasts—and she will carry an open work oval daymark, painted black, at an elevation of about 58 feet above the water line. Her yellow hull will have "Frying-pan Shoals" in large black letters on both sides.
In 1883, the Lighthouse Board had an experimental iron beacon prepared to test the stability of the shoals, likely with the intent to erect some form of a permanent structure. The beacon was stored at the Castle Pickney buoy depot in South Carolina awaiting an opportunity to put it in position, but record of this every happening hasn't been found.
David Melvin began his service aboard LV 115 in 1959. At that time, the vessel was known by the Coast Guard designation WAL 537. Melvin recalls that every two years they would return to port for repairs, and he would help place concrete in the bilges where the hull skin was too thin to be welded. A crew of fifteen was assigned to the lightship, but there were typically ten men aboard, as a third would be taking a fourteen-day leave after having spent twenty-eight days at sea. The men stood a six-hour watch, and then had twelve hours off that they could devote to sleeping, watching movies, catching up on correspondence, or fishing, which was excellent at the station.
Melvin was aboard WAL 537 in 1960, when the crew learned Hurricane Donna was headed their way. Everything aboard was tied down, the crew donned their lifejackets, and almost all of the chain attached to the vessel’s 10,000-lb mushroom anchor was let out in preparation for a rough ride. When the hurricane hit on September 12, the anemometer was pegged at the maximum reading of 100 mph, before suddenly dropping to 0 mph when the anemometer was blown from the ship. The crew didn’t know if the ship would right itself after a particularly severe roll of 70°, and that was with 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel in the tanks serving as ballast.
After a couple of terrifying hours, the eye of the hurricane passed directly overhead, and the wind became eerily calm. The men took advantage of the break to go on deck and smoke a cigarette before bracing for the other side of the hurricane. Melvin estimates the height of the seas to have been roughly half of the ship’s length. At the top of each wave, the men could tell they were dragging anchor and soon started to worry that they would fall victim to the very shoals they were marking.
The crew amazingly came through the hurricane without any injuries, but the ship was littered with objects, and all the food in the walk-in refrigerator was on the floor in a big heap. When the captain was able to get a Loran fix, the lightship was found to be fourteen miles south of its assigned position. David Melvin said life aboard the lightship ranged from “sheer loneliness and boredom, to all the excitement you could stand.” He wouldn’t want to relive those two years, but wouldn’t take anything in exchange for the experience.
In 1964, a four-legged tower, resembling an oil-drilling platform and outfitted with a light tower, was activated on Frying Pan Shoals. When the tower was completed, WAL 537 circled the platform, gave three blasts of its whistle, and sailed off to prepare for her new assignment at Cape May, N.J., as a relief lightship.
The upper portion of the tower was built in Louisiana at a cost of $2 million and then barged to the shoals, where it was lifted by a crane and placed atop a four-legged foundation. The steel legs extend nearly 300 feet below the water to securely anchor the structure to the seabed. The deck that housed the crew has 8,100-square-feet of space and is surmounted by a helicopter pad, which doubled as an exercise and recreation area.
Frying Pan Lighthouse was automated in 1976 and then deactivated in 2003, having been replaced by a large navigational buoy. The lighthouse was auctioned off by the General Services Administration in 2009, with Shipwrecks, Inc., a South Carolina underwater archaeology company, submitting the winning bid of $515,000. After the company failed to close on the deal, the lighthouse was placed on the auction block again and sold to Richard Neal, a software sales engineer from Charlotte, North Carolina, for $85,000 in August 2010.
Assisted by volunteers, Richard Neal accomplished the following improvements in just two years:
Located on Frying Pan Shoals, roughly 33 miles offshore from Bald Head Island. The lighthouse is owned by Richard Neal.
The lighthouse is owned by Richard Neal.
Pictures on this page copyright Todd Mason, Ryan McInnis, used by permission.