It’s a big month for Richard Neal. A television production crew from Home & Garden Television is on the way. NBC World News isn’t far behind and the folks from CNN Money are expected in the weeks ahead. But Neal has a lot to show off.
His new home away from home, the off-shore Frying Pan Tower, is now accepting reservations. That’s right … not only is Neal refurbishing his 2010 purchase, but he’s making it available for others who are looking for a little adventure of their own, something far from the cozy bed and breakfasts that mark the shores of Wrightsville and Carolina Beach.
Located about 30 miles off the coast of Southport, the former US Coast Guard light tower helped mariners navigate Frying Pan Shoals for almost 40 years. Closed permanently in 2003, the site sat dormant for seven years. That was until Neal, a technical salesman for a software company in Charlotte, saw potential in the rusty walls.
The Skype connection to Frying Pan Tower has something of a delay, making it difficult for normal responses to relay accurately. Chuckles, sarcastic anecdotes and monosyllabic responses that remind the speaker that you’re still listening are sort of lost in translation. Despite this, Neal’s laid back personality and adventurous spirit is evident. You get the sense that here’s a guy that would be game for just about anything. And the youtube.com video of him scurrying up the rusty rungs of the tower’s original steps confirms this.
He’s a genuinely nice guy, and that makes this story even better. Average Joe, Everyman, whatever you want to call him, you want to see Neal succeed. And that may be why he has been able to round up so much help in achieving his goal. Well, that and the sheer obscure nature of the task at hand. Let’s face it – who else is looking for volunteers to paint walls 30 miles off-shore and doesn’t require a four year commitment?
With the help of myriad strangers, Neal and his wife Rhonda have tackled the restoration of Frying Pan Tower full throttle. It is nothing short of amazing, said Neal in regard to the number of volunteers who have stepped forward to help. More than 200 friends to date, both old and new, have made the project possible with in-kind donations, financial contributions or participation in the overwhelming amount of labor required to make the site inhabitable.
Free bottled water has been made available thanks to Culligan; a matching grant from Consolidated Truck Parks of Rockwell and a donation from Neal’s friend have replaced the tower glass; DH Griffin Co. has donated stairs; and Rob and Cassie Whitney are just some of the many local residents who have helped facilitate transportation of people and supplies. The list goes on.
The goal, Neal said, has been to keep the door open as wide as possible, allowing people to donate their time and skills to the project as much as they would like. It can, however, be frustrating, mainly because transportation and the movement of supplies continues to be one of the more challenging parts of the puzzle to piece together. Anyone with a large workboat (custom 56-foot sportfishers aren’t well suited) and a little time on their hands, please apply within.
It may be important to note at this juncture that Neal does not own a boat – a fact he shares with a short laugh, fully realizing just how silly the idea is for someone who lives part-time at sea.
Nor had he any idea that he may actually win the chance to find out when he submitted a sealed bid in 2010. In a 2008 auction, the bid accepted by the government was more than half a million dollars, Neal said, although the buyer backed out when he wasn’t allowed to inspect the site prior to purchase. When the tower was put on the auction block a second time, Neal put in an $11,000 sealed bid, thinking it was probably nowhere near the figure expected.
But it happened to be the only bid submitted. The man from the government’s General Services Administration asked if he liked baseball, Neal said, “and I told him I did, I had played for nine years. So he leans over the table and said ‘I figure it this way … you hit a good bunt and made it to first base. Don’t you want to make it to home?’”
After a few rounds of negotiations – and the help of a friend – Neal was the owner of his very own piece of history for about $85,000.
Neal, it seems, has hit a home run.
The Life Aquatic
He is fond of referring to the space as rustic – meaning it’s covered in rust. But slowly, Carolina blue is covering the peeling beige military paint in the bedrooms, the layers of dust are being polished away and services are being restored. Neal is quick to point out that this is a government facility, so even when complete it will be utilitarian at best. What it lacks in amenities, however, the tower makes up for with its cool factor, including unhindered views of the sunrise and sunset, a birds-eye view of the sea life below and the chance to drive a golf ball from 85 feet above the ocean – a task made possible thanks to an Australian company’s biodegradable golf balls. Jokes about the water hazard abound.
The tower’s 5,000 square feet of living space has been renovated into eight guest rooms, similar in scope to that of a state room on a cruise ship, although each comes complete with an ocean view. They are small, yet provide plenty of space. A main day room and kitchen are fully functional, hot and cold running water is in place, as is wifi and digital television. Visitors can skeet shoot, drive golf balls or try their hand at the original Brunswick pool table that was left behind by the tower’s previous occupants.
The spot has long been a must-stop for fishermen and divers who revel at the king mackerel, amberjack, African pompano, barracuda, dolphin, tuna, lobster and yes, sharks, that gather near the tower’s rusty legs. Located in only 50 feet of water, Neal said the view from above is astounding. The 85-foot-high deck allows visitors to see all the activity in the water below.
“The temperature’s 80° and the water temperature will be 82° and I’ll be on a conference call and doing work. When I’m done I’ll step out onto the helipad and it’s just surreal,” said Neal. “It’s so weird to stand here and do a 360° turn and know there is no place on earth where this is possible. It’s amazing.”
As is the night sky, he notes, with no light pollution or obstructions to block the view.
For Neal and volunteers, days are spent with a variety of tasks, from refurbishing the light in the tower, getting generators up and running and “MacGyvering” a way to dip the GoPro camera into the waters below when the site was invaded by sharks recently. They used a string, a weight and finally added a pole to get the combination right, Neal said. And it’s a great testament to just how easy it is to get distracted while working at Frying Pan. That, said Neal, is sort of the approach. Everyone works hard, but there is always a new puzzle to solve, a new avenue for fun when the work is done.
“I’m just a computer nerd so it is very much fun and intriguing for me,” Neal said.
For less than $400 per person, visitors can spend a weekend at Frying Pan Tower. Transportation is not provided, although Neal provides links to arrange for either boat or helicopter passage. There is an area for private boats to tie up, although guests do so at their own risk and Neal notes that because of wave action it is only safe for boats longer than 25 feet.
“For everyone that comes out, it is more than they expect and it’s less then they expect,” the owner said. He equates a weekend at the tower to a cross between camping and staying at a beach house. “The views are just astonishing, you can see the shark and the balls of bait fish, that amazes them. Then they go and look at the walls,” Neal said with a chuckle.
Guests are reminded that this is an ongoing restoration project – and will remain so for several years. It is not an ideal vacation spot for someone who is accustomed to the finer things in life or the faint of heart, he said.
“It is a rusty old steel box – and if you take a wrong step at the wrong time, you really could be swimming,” Neal said.
But for the surefooted looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, Frying Pan Tower may be a step in the right direction.
Construction on the $2 million project began in 1964 and was completed in 1966. Since 1854, a lightship had been active near Frying Pan Shoals, however, concerns over the safety of the ships during storms forced the government to find a permanent solution. Fifteen of the towers were constructed in various locations, three of which remain, including Frying Pan’s identical sister, Diamond Shoals, which is located off of Hatteras.
Often referred to as a Texas Tower, Frying Pan was constructed in the style of an off-shore oil rig. The site is supported on 42-inch diameter steel legs that extend more than 290 feet below sea level. The Quarters Deck is about 75 feet above the water. It was manned full-time, with crews serving four weeks on the tower and two on shore, until 1979, when it was automated. By 2003, GPS and other technological advances rendered the site unnecessary and it was decommissioned.
An interesting footnote, after sinking in the Chesapeake Bay and being salvaged, the Frying Pan Lightship has found new life as a bar and grill in New York City. It can be found, partially refurbished, at Pier 66 at the Hudson River Park, where it is aptly named Lightship Frying Pan. It is one of only 13 remaining lightships of the more than 100 put into service.
The other remaining towers include Diamond Shoals, which is 13 miles southeast of Hatteras and was purchased in 2012 by Dave Schneider of Richfield, Minn. His goal is to use the tower as a research site for his company, Zap Water Technology. The Chesapeake Tower will soon be reconditioned as a weather research station and turbine.
To learn more about Frying Pan Tower, visit www.fptower.com.