More rust than rustic.
That’s how Richard Neal wryly refers to his 48-year-old light tower that stands in the Atlantic Ocean 30 miles off the southeastern North Carolina coast.
Rust is what visitors first see when they enter the 140-foot-high Frying Pan Tower. Plus corrosion. Peeling paint. Missing ceiling tiles. The tower has been deteriorating in the wind-and-wave-swept environment since Coast Guard crews left 33 years ago.
That is, until 2010. Neal bought the tower at auction, sight unseen except for a flyover, for $85,000.
Neal, 51, of Mint Hill, just east of Charlotte, isn’t a real-estate developer but a software sales engineer and self-described average Joe. He and his wife, Rhonda, are breathing new life into the abandoned structure, once doomed to become an artificial fishing reef.
They’re converting it into a bed-and-breakfast for the adventurous, offering stays for up to eight on the 5,000-square-foot marine hideaway. The first paying guests, a group of four, are coming this weekend. The only neighbors are sharks, barracudas, sea turtles, sport-fishing boats and scuba divers. Cast a line and fish for black sea bass and grouper. Climb to the helicopter landing deck, sip a cool one and watch spellbinding sunrises and sunsets.
Prepare to rough it.
“You’re going to see rust,” Neal said. “There may be times when the generator might kick off. This is not a cruise. This is not a Marriott. This is a work in progress. This is a blend, for the next year or so, between camping out and being on a unique facility in the ocean.”
The rate is $300 a person for two nights, excluding transportation to the tower. Guests bring and cook their own meals. They shower in water collected in a cistern, sleep in rooms with ocean views (one of eight bedrooms has been repainted) and shoot pool on a billiards table in the rec room. No bugs, steady breezes, plenty of sun.
Going to sea
The tower was built in 1964 for the Coast Guard for $2 million. Its beacon warned passing ships of the shallow Frying Pan Shoals. It was staffed until 1979, when the beacon was automated. Then GPS navigation made the tower obsolete.
To refurbish Frying Pan, Neal relies heavily on volunteers with skills and donated equipment. His priority has been to get essential services running and to repair unsafe grating and supports.
Earlier this month, I joined volunteers David Wood of Monroe, Jeff Riecken of Haw River and Mike Vickery of Hampstead for a weekend on the tower.
Vickery, a Charlotte native, signed up a year and a half ago. “I know how to weld, paint, scrape, you name it,” Vickery said. “I’m fascinated by the opportunity to come out to what to me is a historical site. It’s just fun. It’s work. We work our butts off.”
At Southport, we loaded supplies onto Capt. Kevin Sneed’s “Rigged & Ready” fishing boat. The trip out took 90 minutes. The tower has a spiral staircase, but a hurricane blew off the lower section. There’s no elevator. So Sneed maneuvered the boat to allow Neal to grab the rungs on a thick piling. Neal climbed up and once inside the tower began lowering the power-operated hoist cable.
Everything and everybody goes up by hoist. One by one we climbed into a bosun’s chair, which was hooked to the steel cable, and to a safety line, and dangled over the water. And dangled. The five-minute, 80-foot lift is an adrenalin rush. Or a stomach turner.
Hoisting people and cargo took two hours. Neal brought in a hot-and-cold water dispenser, steel braces for solar panels and 40 gallons of gasoline for the generators.
The living quarters can best be described as utilitarian. Peeling beige paint hangs from the walls of the rec room. Chairs, table, faded dart board and pool table are legacies of Coast Guarders. Their cats, Bacon and Eggs, once played here.
Kitchen appliances work when the generator fires up. An elderly refrigerator huffs air that’s more cool than cold.
Cellphones rarely get a signal. But Neal has set up an Internet connection so visitors can use email or Skype. For medical emergencies, a call on a marine band radio can summon help.
On the first morning, two dozen sport-fishing and dive boats either had parked around the tower or were headed toward it. Long a popular destination, the tower attracts African pompano, amberjack, king mackerel and ever-present barracudas. Royal terns wheel around the tower continually, squawking and diving for small fish in the dappled turquoise water 50 feet deep.
Anglers and scuba divers are potential customers, and Neal plans to put in mooring buoys later this summer so boats can tie up safely overnight. Two people, including Neal himself or volunteers, stay on the tower with guests.
“We’re now progressing toward restoration,” he said. “We now have hot and cold running water, electricity. We now have 15,000 gallons of rainwater to use for rinsing, washing clothes. Taking a nice hot shower – it just feels great.”
On the recent weekend, Neal, Vickery and Wood put up steel braces for new solar photovoltaic panels. Riecken inspected and replaced wiring in the living quarters. Then Neal and Riecken descended one of the pilings to attach a ladder for easier access from the water.
“This is like a getaway to me,” Wood said. “I got up at 7:30 and worked until the sun went down. It’s fun being out in the middle of the ocean, nothing but blue water all around, and doing restoration.”
Though he has no previous connection to the sea, Neal feels obliged to preserve Frying Pan Tower as part of North Carolina’s maritime history. Lightships, which preceded the tower, have been warning mariners here since 1854.
He doesn’t believe he’ll make a profit from the B&B at sea.
“I hope to break even,” Neal said. “Eventually, maybe when it’s fully restored, someone may actually want it. It’s possible down the road it might have value. I think we’re trying to restore this and maintain it so we can pass it on to the next set of hands to work on it.”
Jack Horan of Charlotte is retired outdoors editor of the Observer.