Overnight Stay: Frying Pan Shoals Light Station
-- first published in Lighthouse News Vol. XIX 2013; by Jason Jennette
A weekend spent on the Frying Pan Tower is an adventure not to be taken lightly or on a whim.
Richard Neal bought the lighthouse in a government auction in 2010 and has slowly been working on converting the former lighthouse into a bed and breakfast. This normally wouldn’t be a dramatic undertaking except that the steel tower is perched eighty feet over the ocean and 23 miles from the coast of Bald Head Island, near Wilmington, NC.
There are two ways on and off the tower. It is a swift ten-minute helicopter ride or a bumpy two and one-half-hour boat ride from Southport, NC. Weight restrictions create a limit on what you can carry by helicopter. Weather and sea conditions influence a trip by boat. On my trip in July, I was given the unique opportunity to ride out on a boat and fly home on the helicopter, so I got a taste of both.
When riding out on the boat you do not really have a limit on what you can take out. Guests regularly take diving and fishing gear for the unique weekend. The ride to the light station reminds me of a ride on the “Log Flume” at Six Flags. It is quite bumpy, and you and everything on board get a little wet. I advise that you take motion sickness pills starting 24 hours before you leave. At a minimum, you should double-bag in large garbage bags whatever you take.
If you go by helicopter, there are mandatory weight limits for people and supplies. As it was explained to me, a helicopter can only carry a set amount of weight and it must carry people, fuel and luggage. Since you can’t really skimp on the fuel, it becomes a choice of people or luggage. You really need to pack light.
The extra benefit (or drawback) to boat travel is the eighty feet between the water and the tower. After Richard climbs up the leg of the light station and unlocks the tower, he turns on the generators and starts lifting people one at a time along with heavy duty canvas “lift bags” filled with the supplies for the weekend. On my trip, my ride up was via a bosun’s chair attached to a steel cable. It creaked and it spun. It spun a lot. Closing your eyes does not help. I think that the motion sickness pills I had been taking for 2 days prior to the boat ride kept me from getting sick on the five-minute ride up to the deck. Sometime following my trip to the tower, the old winch has been replaced with a much faster winch and the trip now takes about one minute. Unloading the boat took perhaps an hour on my trip, but with the faster lift it should go much more quickly in the future.
The tower itself is basically a big metal box on very tall legs. There are walkways around the outside on the living level and also the helicopter landing level above. The west side of the living level is divided into about six bedrooms all with ocean views. There is a large kitchen with stove, oven, microwave, and refrigerator. Since the generators are turned off when no one is on the tower, the refrigerator takes a while to cool down, but Richard has recently upgraded to a new fridge so it should cool faster.
There are actually three different generators on the tower. Depending on the time of day and power needs, Richard will switch between the different generators. Running the winch, oven, and hot water heater requires the large generator, and it is only run as needed. During the day, the medium-sized generator provides for lights and power outlets. At night, the small generator is enough to keep the lights on. On my trip I helped Richard install battery power, motion-activated lights in the halls and in the bathroom. I suggest you bring a flash light anyway.There is also a large living/dining room and play area that still has the original furniture and pool table. Currently the tower does not have central air conditioning but with the windows and doors open the cool sea breezes keep things comfortable. Richard is currently working on getting heat installed in the tower so that people can visit your round.
To me the biggest selling point for a visit to the tower was time spent up on the helicopter pad. Since you are 23 miles from shore, there is no land in sight in any direction. You get to see sunrise and sunset every day. Every evening on the tower we would take lounge chairs out on the landing pad and sit back and relax as the sun dipped below horizon and painted the sky with beautiful colors.
Other fun can be had on the tower including flying a kite in the steady wind, skeet shooting, and driving biodegradable golf balls (made of fish food) from the landing pad. If you like to fish, the tower is a dream location. You are never more than ten steps from a great fishing spot. The down side is reeling in the extra 80 feet of line––but casting is almost unnecessary. Black sea bass, barracuda, and sharks are everywhere, and amberjack are in the area, if you can reel them in.
A weekend on the tower is currently about $500 for three days and two nights. This includes basic food but you are encouraged to bring food to supplement the hamburgers and hot dogs and sandwiches. Everyone joins in to help with the cooking and cleaning for meals.
The $$$ fee does not include transportation since many people use their own boat to get there. Richard can help you arrange transportation if you like. I also suggest following the tower on Facebook as Richard will occasionally have last minute openings (often at a discount) and he announces these via Facebook. You do need to be very flexible and ready to go as you will likely only get one day’s notice.