WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, NC (WECT) – Two years ago, a Charlotte man began surfing the web, looking for vacation homes along the North Carolina coastline. What he found has made him the owner of what could very well be the most exclusive bed and breakfast, fishing and diving destination in the country.
The Frying Pan Shoals has been a hazard for shipping since early exploration of the area. The shallows have caused numerous shipwrecks and have taken countless lives. At one time, light ships were used to warn mariners of navigation hazards.
Lightship number 115, also known as Lightship Frying Pan, was on duty as a floating lighthouse until her retirement in 1965. That's when she was replaced with the Frying Pan Tower, a oil rig type structure, built in the gulf coast area and towed to its destination, forty six miles off Masonboro Inlet, at the eastern edge of Frying Pan Shoals.
The living deck is 85 feet over the water line. Engineers sank the pilings for the tower two hundred feet thru shell and sand, to anchor it to the ocean bottom. Its legs extend some fifty feet to the ocean floor.
Crews of four men stayed on the tower twenty four hours a day, seven days a week until the electronic system was automated in 1979. But because of the salt water and air, and lack of attention, the tower fell into disrepair. New GPS technology led to the decommissioning of the tower in 2003.
In 2010, Charlotte computer programmer Richard Neal found a government website where the tower was being put on auction. Neal put in a bid and wound up the owner, for the price of $85,000.
"It is a bit of a defining moment when you realize you have to call your wife and tell her what you got for your twenty fifth anniversary is a giant chunk of steel in the middle of the ocean, so I think I was more concerned about that than I was restoring the tower," said Neal.
The tower itself is structurally sound, but rust and corrosion is everywhere. To completely restore the tower, it's estimated to be well over a million dollars investment. But Neal says he thinks it can be done for half that amount and is relying on volunteers to work in the restoration.
Neal says on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest, he ranks the tower's condition now at a two, which means there is still a lot of work that has to be done.
However, enough work has been completed to allow guests to pay for overnight visits. There are eight bedrooms, all of which are naturally, facing the ocean. The wind constantly blows, so you don't need air conditioning.
Neal says it is like a beach house, with clean sheets, towels and kitchen amenities provided.
And up one flight of stairs from the living area is the 80 foot by 80 foot deck, offering a panoramic view of the ocean, brilliant sunrises and romantic sunsets, with no city lights and unlimited views of the stars above.
The biggest challenge Neal faces is access by the public to the tower itself, because of the abundant fishing and diving opportunities, there are always boats circling the structure. But getting up the 85 feet from the water level and back down to a boat is a challenge. We were hoisted up and down by winch in a chair that dangles out over the ocean. The system is perfectly safe, not very comfortable, but certainly is thrilling.
A boat is one way of getting to the tower, the other is by helicopter and both ways are expensive. And that is where the main part of the restoration lies, obtaining some type of mooring docking systems, where boats can actually tie up to a secure dock and then walk onto a platform to be lifted up and down from the ocean surface to the living area 85 feet above.
Under the tower, there is a virtual aquarium and some of the best sport fishing and spear fishing along the east coast.