SOUTHPORT — An American landmark off the coast of Brunswick County is gaining attention and a donation from a worldwide e-commerce company. Amazon recently put $25,000 toward the preservation efforts of the 58-year-old Frying Pan Tower. Once a lightship for the Coast Guard, today it provides an outlet for education, research and daring entertainment.
Tower owner Richard Neal hopes to raise $1.5 million to continue his mission. Primarily, the wind-and-solar-powered tower is used for ecological and environmental exploration in offshore wind, marine-life and university research, as well as a weather resource for mariners.
FPTower, a 501(c)3, has partnered over the years with John Hopkins University, MIT, the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management and miscellaneous marine biologists for studies on weather, shark tagging, birds and bat monitoring and wind turbine analysis.
To continuously fund and run the nonprofit, Neal takes donations, recruits volunteers and sells Black Powder Coffee, a small batch craft roaster who designed the blend specifically for Frying Pan Tower. Neal also has branded merchandise and even has branched into ecotourism, with Frying Pan offering overnight stays for adventurous travelers.
All the money goes back to its upkeep and maintenance.
“We only need one or two people who would really get behind this and make it so we can very carefully make the modifications and repairs needed, things like pipes falling off,” Neal said. “So I brazingly jumped out there on the internet to tell people, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”
There’s an air of mystery surrounding the Oklahoma native, whose career has a rich and varied past. He has dabbled in everything from chemistry and engineering, to transportation and electronics, to the Alaskan pipeline.
Not really knowing what he was getting into, Neal said he purchased the ocean-bound landmark over a decade ago.
Today, it’s an ongoing labor of love.
“When you have something you love to do, you do have a tendency to dwell on it,” Neal said. “I often have to ask my friends, ‘Is it OK if I talk about the tower?’”
Built in 1964, Frying Pan Tower was constructed by the U.S. Coast Guard as a light station to warn passing ships of the rocky, shallow Frying Pan Shoals nearby. When the station was abandoned in 1992, the government stopped manning and maintaining it.
In 2009, the tower was sold at an auction to the highest bidder for $515,000, site unseen. When the original buyer backed out, the government put the tower back up for sale, this time through a sealed bid process.
The only one to take the bait was Neal. He offered up $11,262 though ended up paying eight times the amount.
“It was the best $85,000 I’ve ever spent,” he said
The government estimated in 2009 it would take $1.5 million to restore the tower. Neal said the longer he’s out there working on it, the more he tends to agree.
To date, he has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into it and has received twice that in donations. Though he admitted he “stopped keeping track” about five years ago.
“We’ve done over $500,000,” Neal estimated toward restorative measures. “If we had $1 million at our disposal, we could make physical improvements to the structure. Engineers don’t think it will fall down any time soon, but it’s increasingly degrading.”
Since the tower was not maintained for nearly two decades, Neal said the structure is rusting in all areas and non-vital pieces have come loose. It has lived through numerous hurricanes and been exposed to saltwater for six decades, adding to its vulnerability.
“We don’t need a lighthouse anymore,” Neal said. “But we do need advance warning of hurricane conditions or what’s going on with the waves or current temperatures if you’re a mariner.”
The tower has come a long way since it was decommissioned. Today, it has a weather station that publishes live information about wave height, weather and water temperature, and storm warnings for boaters.
The U.S. Coast Guard, too, uses surveillance installed on top of it to locate divers or boaters in distress. The agency asked Neal to install a permanent phone for emergency situations.
Volunteer or vacation
Neal formed the nonprofit, FPTower Inc., in late 2020. He divested his ownership of the tower in 2018 to focus on the nonprofit efforts. Today, he said many anonymous donors continue backing Frying Pan.
“When you work on something yourself, you never stop working,” he said. “I started recruiting, begging and asking people to come help.”
Neal spends every other week, year-round, rain or shine, at the tower and usually has anywhere from four to eight people helping him. FPTower Inc. asks volunteers who want to take part in its preservation for a recommended donation of $850 to $1,500, used toward travel to and from the location, as well as for needed materials, such as cables, paint and equipment.
Volunteers assist with anything from welding, wiring to cleaning.
“The biggest problem is people don’t believe they can be out here and be part of it without having a particular skill,” Neal said.
But that’s not true, he assured. Individuals with disabilities can also be accommodated.
The Frying Pan Tower is outfitted with modern amenities, such as internet, and with eight bedrooms.
For those who would rather experience the tower but not necessarily do work during a visit, Neal rents it out for an “adventure weekend,” Friday to Sunday, for $1,550. All proceeds collected are used toward rehab endeavors.
Vacationers are responsible for their own meals and cleanup. Many amenities are listed, including fishing, skeet shooting, hitting biodegradable golf balls into the ocean, playing pool or darts, or watching the sunrise and sunset from the helipad, which takes up the entire top of the tower.
Neal said the temperate weather makes it a haven for visitors.
“It can be 95 on shore and a nice 82 out here,” he explained. “In the winter, it can be bone-chilling cold there, but a cool 55 degrees here.”
The daring have even been known to take the plunge from the highest elevation — 135 feet above the ocean — into the shark habitat below.
Marine biologists venture out to use the destination for tagging and monitoring sharks, which gravitate to the tower.
The sea floor in a 1-mile radius around the site is a protected reef, making it a magnet for scuba divers.
Vacationers sign liability release waivers ahead of the trip, and Neal kicks off every venture with a safety briefing among visitors.
“You can do stupid things out here and I try to prevent that,” he said.
‘It’s incredible and it’s beautiful”
Located 30 miles off the coast, there are two ways to reach the tower: by helicopter and boat. Neal makes the trip every other week to go home and see his wife. When he returns, it’s to restock and pick up volunteers or visitors along the way.
Helicopters are rented privately and can carry up to three individuals, but it’s limited on what it can transport per supplies. It costs FPTower Inc. about $2,000 a roundtrip by chopper and $3,800 by boat.
The benefit to using a watercraft is that it can carry up to six people, as well as more goods and resources. The downside is it’s a longer trip, up to eight hours depending on the boat.
Another challenge is the action needed to get onboard the tower from a water vessel. Neal said it’s his job to hoist individuals up on a cable from the boat but first he takes a leap of faith — literally, onto a rusty tower ladder.
After traversing up 65 feet of handrails and climbing into the belly of the structure, he opens the doors and lowers a hoist device to other passengers who are then individually pulled up to the site.
“And we pull up 4-foot-by-4-foot bags stuffed with goodies, gear and supplies,” Neal said, “And the occasional donated keg of beer.”
Neal confirmed he places orders every few days or weekly. Goods have been traveling to Frying Pan over the last eight years from Raleigh to a regional jetport in Oak Island. A boat captain or helicopter picks up the packages for the final leg of the trip.
“Using Amazon, we get it the next day,” Neal said.
Frying Pan Tower is considered one of five remote locations to which Amazon delivers.
The company’s $25,000 donation will be used to buy more equipment, such as upgrading Neal’s underwater shark camera, installed about eight years ago. Right now, it’s offline due to a cable needing replacement. Anyone can tune in online when it’s functioning.
“A lot of people contact us and say, ‘We have it on in the classroom,’” he explained. “Just watching the sharks swimming around.”
The self-proclaimed “life learner” said he trained in scuba diving to implement the tower’s underwater tools — the shark camera and weather-measuring buoy, both of which provide information to the public.
Neal also will purchase a remote operating vehicle to submerge on the ocean floor, to be driven online from anywhere in the world.
“It’s a really great tool,” he said. “It can be used for marine biologist researchers and help us educate on marine life.”
He would like to utilize it to compel younger students to gain an interest in science. Growing up in the Midwest, Neal said he never understood what ocean life entailed.
“It wasn’t until I started lowering my GoPros down there I learned, my God, there’s a zoo under here — and it’s incredible and it’s beautiful,” he said.
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