By ANN GREEN
While standing on a charter boat far out in the Atlantic, Mike Allen points to the 125-foot Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower that was once his home away from home.
“It is good to see her after 25 years,” says Allen, who was one of the last U.S. Coast Guard crews to serve on the tower. “The antenna is where my room was. She has gotten older and rusted.”
There have been other changes. Hurricanes washed away the tower’s bulkhead, landing, and parts of the spiral staircase that Allen used to climb to the top, he recalls.
During a charter trip on the SS Winner Queen, Allen sang and shared his memories of working on the tower — which transmitted signals to ships near low sandy areas or shoals. Carolina Ocean Studies, an educational tour group out of Carolina Beach, sponsored the trip.
The tower automation saddened Allen. “It was like taking out the soul of the tower,” he adds. “There were times when people needed assistance on their boats, but couldn’t be heard on shore. When there was a crew on the tower, you could at least relay a message.”
The tower — along with the one at Diamond Shoals — will be dismantled in the near future because of advances in radio navigation. “Light towers were like lighthouses in the water,” says Bob Browning, Coast Guard chief historian. “They replaced light ships as an economic move and navigational aid. Since Frying Pan Shoals was a dangerous area and more than 20 miles out in the Atlantic, it was an important navigational point for mariners.”
The dismantling of the tower is an ongoing project, says Dave Santos, media relations specialist in the Coast Guard’s Atlantic area office. “The demolition project was still out for bids in March.”
After the tower is dismantled, it will be used an artificial reef that will be managed by the N.C. Division of Fisheries. The hard bottom provides an ideal habitat for marine life, including snapper, grouper and porgy.
“It is respectful and appropriate to give the tower a burial at sea,” says Richard Cecelski, Carolina Oecan Studies director. “There has been a light ship or tower here since 1854, with the exception of three years during the Civil War and two years since World War II.”
Valerie Dugan, a John T. Hoggard High School ocean science teacher in Wilmington, agrees.
“The tower is like a friend to me,” says Dugan. “At least once a year, I take a trip out to see the tower.”
Last fall, the Coast Guard announced it would not replace the weather instruments on the Frying Pan tower. Instead, the National Weather Service anchored a 3-meter discus buoy near the tower. The buoy tranmit data on wind speed, water and air temperature, air pressure, dew point and wind direction to weather stations on shore. Its data are available online.
Before light towers, lightships were the sentinels of the ocean.
At least six lightships were in use off England’s coast before the United States even ventured into the concept of lightships. The first U.S. “light boat” was launched in 1820 off Willoughby Split, Va., to aid Chesapeake Bay commerce, according to the Coast Guard Web site.
Four years later, a lightship was assigned to Diamond Shoals about 15 miles from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. This vessel was an extremely important marker for north-south coastal traffic.
However, it wasn’t until 1860 that a station was established at Frying Pan Shoals nearly 17 miles south and east of Cape Fear. The last North Carolina lightship station was opened at Cape Lookout Shoals in 1905, 20.3 miles from Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
At one time, there was a fleet of more than 100 lightships maintained by the government. Lightships satisfied multiple requirements — from day beacons and light platforms at night, to sound signal stations in times of reduced visibility, and around-the-clock transmitters for electronic signals.
Ivey Gaskill of Southport served on the Diamond Shoals lightship for 18 months during the mid-1960s.
“The ship was 128 feet long and drew 15 feet of water,” says Gaskill. “It was like being in an automatic washing machine. You were looking at water going round and round.”
Time passed slowly on the lightships. When not on watch, crews watched westerns three or four times a week, according to Capt. David Melvin, who maintains the Lightship Sailor Association Web site.
“We would also enjoy the fresh taste of bread, milk and vegetables,” says Melvin. But at the end of the two weeks, the food got old, he adds.
In addition to watching movies and eating, the crew did a lot of bottom fishing. They ate some of the fish and gave the rest away to party boats, according to Melvin. In return, the party boat would take the crew’s stamped mail ashore. All in all, it was not an easy life, he adds.
The Frying Pan had a relief ship — aptly named the Relief. Life on the sister ship could be quite noisy, according to Joe Floyd of Wilmington, who served on the Relief during the 1950s.
“In foggy weather, we had two air-operated fog horns that could be heard 12 miles away,” says Floyd. “I remember it running for 72 hours straight. The fog horns were so powerful that they would rattle objects on a desk and dishes in the galley. You would get little sleep.”
There were a number of mishaps on lightships. Mankind caused the loss of the Diamond Shoals Lightship #71 in 1918 off Cape Hatteras.
“A German submarine, provoked by the lightship’s radio message warning of shipping, surfaced,” according to Coast Guard reports. After allowing the 12-man crew to abandon the ship, the Germans sank it with shellfire. However, the lightship’s “sacrifice was not in vain though, for more than 25 Allied ships had received its timely radio warning,” wrote historian Willard Flint.
Sixteen years later, the British luxury liner Olympic, the sister ship to the Titanic, severed the lightship Nantucket in two, killing seven of the 11-man crew.
Lightship crews often endured nature’s fury. For example, when the lights went out in bad weather, Floyd had to climb a 100-foot mast to replace the bulbs.
“We had a certain routine when climbing the ladder,” says Floyd. “You would start on the bottom rung, wait for the ship to pitch forward, and climb as fast as you could. When the ship pitched backwards, you would hold on for dear life and then repeat the process up the mast.”
Floyd also endured a couple of hurricanes, including Hazel and Diane. During Hazel in 1954, Floyd says that he and an engineman were the only ones who did not get sick.
“Everybody else was tied into the bunk,” he says. “If you looked out any port hole, you would only see water. If you were in the wheel house or stock room, you would put your arms in the holes and legs around a stool.”
Hurricane Diane that hit in 1955 caused more problems for the crew. “The seas broke up, and we lost the 8,000-pound main anchor and 5,000-pound spare anchor,” says Floyd. “We ended up 130 miles south near South Carolina.”
Duty on the lightships wasn’t all hardships.
“You were able to eat better than any other branch of service,” says Floyd. “We ordered food, and a cook prepared it. We had an open galley.”
Some of the lightships, including #115 Frying Pan, have led remarkable lives.
While docked at an oyster cannery in the Chesapeake Bay, Frying Pan was abandoned and then sunk because of a broken pipe, according to the Lightship Frying Pan Web site. The lightship stayed underwater for three years before being raised by salvors. Instead of going to the scrap yard, she was raised, resold and towed to Manhattan’s Pier 63 within the new Chelsea Waterside Park. Frying Pan is now being used for parties and special events.
“The owners left a lot of the encrusted interior,” says Allen, who toured the boat. “It is kinda spooky to go on it. It is used as a nightclub.”
To save on manpower and construction and maintenance costs, the Coast Guard began replacing the lightships in the 1960s with Texas-style light towers that looked like offshore oil platforms and navigational buoys.
In 1964, a light tower at Frying Pan Shoals was erected. Two years later, a similar structure was built at Diamond Shoals.
The Frying Pan light tower — which was automated in 1979 — was erected at the end of the shoals so ships could pick up radio signal and avoid them.
Allen, along with a crew of five, served on the Frying Pan light tower from 1977 to 78. They rotated between tower and land duty.
Crewmen served four weeks on the tower and two weeks off. They rode out to the tower on a 44-foot boat from the Oak Island Coast Guard Station, or on the 82-foot Point Martin out of Wrightsville Beach. On a few occasions, a helicopter would fly them out to the tower.
Pilings for the tower sank 200 feet though shell and sand to anchor it to the ocean bottom. Its legs extended from a depth of 50 feet underwater to the living deck 80 feet high over the water line.
“In the summer, you could see the bottom for 50 feet,” says Allen. “The Gulf Stream would run under the tower. Every once in a while, you would see a turtle go by.”
Allen also encountered birds that would fly into the tower at night, slamming into the windows. “One night, we found 138 birds that had rammed into the tower, and some had beat the feathers off their heads.”
Allen says the scariest job was cleaning the windows. “You had to stand on a top rail to clean the glass,” he says. “It was fine if you didn’t look down.”
Life at sea often brought unexpected requests, says Allen.
One time, he says, a tug with a 1,000-foot tow on a barge came by. “The ship was supposed to pull into Savannah, but had to stay out to sea due to adverse weather near the port,” adds Allen. “They had elected to head up to the next port in New York. But because of missing the port in Savannah, they had run out of cigarettes and asked for help.”
The light tower crew got together cigarettes that were double wrapped in plastic bags, tied to a couple of empty plastic milk jugs and dropped over the side, says Allen.
“The tug made three or four figure eights to try and recover the cigarettes but never got them,” he adds.
When Allen had nothing to do, he would play with two cats named Bacon and Eggs.
“One time, I was looking out the engine room during a 45-mile-per-hour squall,” he says. “One of the cats had climbed on the inside of the I-beam used for the hoist and was 90 feet over the water. The cat was standing on the narrow 1/2-inch ledge and looking around at the end of the hoist into the wind like a dog sticking his head out of the window of a pickup truck going down the highway.”
To pass the time, Allen also would shoot pool in the small recreation room, watch television, or fish with a piece of hotdog as bait.
“One time, I caught a 20-pound bluefish and had to pull the fish up 80 feet from the water to the living quarters.”
Allen plans to take another trip to the tower before it is demolished.
“I have a lot of good memories,” he says. “I watched the sun come up a lot out here.”
To find weather data about Frying Pan Shoals, visit the Web: www.ndbc.noaa.gov. For more information on lightships, click on: www.uscg.mil/hq/g.cp/history.
This article was published in the Early Summer 2004 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.