SOUTHPORT — An American landmark off the coast of Brunswick County is attracting attention and a donation from a global e-commerce company. Amazon recently invested $25,000 in preservation efforts at the 58-year-old Frying Pan Tower. Once a flagship of 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. Mainly, the wind and solar power tower is used for ecological and environmental exploration in offshore wind, marine life and academic research, as well as a weather resource for sailors.
FPTower, a 501(c)3, has partnered over the years with Johns Hopkins University, MIT, the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management and various marine biologists for studies of weather, shark tagging , bird and bat monitoring and wind turbine analysis.
To fund and run the nonprofit on an ongoing basis, Neal receives donations, recruits volunteers, and sells Black Powder Coffee, a small-batch craft roaster who crafted the blend specifically for Frying Pan Tower. Neal also offers branded goods and has even dabbled in ecotourism, with Frying Pan offering overnight stays to adventurous travellers.
All the money goes to its upkeep and maintenance.
“We just need one or two people who would really get involved and make sure we can make the necessary modifications and repairs very carefully, things like falling pipes,” Neal said. “So I brazenly jumped on the internet to tell people, ‘This is what we do. “”
An air of mystery surrounds the Oklahoma native, whose career has a rich and varied past. He’s dabbled in everything from chemicals and engineering to transportation and electronics to the Alaska pipeline.
Not quite sure what he was getting into, Neal said he bought the ocean-bound landmark more than a decade ago.
Today it is a continuous labor of love.
“When you have something you love doing, you tend to dwell on it,” Neal said. “I often have to ask my friends, ‘Is it okay if I talk about the tower?'”
Built in 1964, the Frying Pan Tower was built by the US Coast Guard as a beacon to warn passing ships of nearby rocky and shallow Frying Pan Shoals. When the station was abandoned in 1992, the government stopped equipping and maintaining it.
In 2009, the tower was auctioned off to the highest bidder for $515,000, site unseen. When the original buyer pulled out, the government put the tower up for sale again, this time through a sealed bidding process.
The only one to take the bait was Neal. He offered $11,262 but ended up paying eight times the amount.
“It was the best $85,000 I’ve ever spent,” he said.
The government estimated in 2009 that it would take $1.5 million to restore the tower. Neal said the longer he worked on it, the more he tended to agree.
To date, he has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars and received double that in donations. Although he admitted he “stopped following” about five years ago.
“We made over $500,000,” Neal estimated for the restoration measures. “If we had $1 million at our disposal, we could make physical improvements to the structure. Engineers don’t think it’ll fall anytime soon, but it’s degrading more and more.
Since the tower has not been maintained for nearly two decades, Neal said the structure is rusting in all areas and non-vital parts have come loose. It has weathered numerous hurricanes and been exposed to salt water for six decades, which has increased its vulnerability.
“We don’t need a lighthouse anymore,” Neal said. “But we need advance warning of hurricane conditions or what’s happening with the current waves or temperatures if you’re a sailor.”
The tower has come a long way since it was decommissioned. Today, it has a weather station that posts live information on wave height, weather and water temperature, as well as storm warnings for boaters.
The US Coast Guard also uses overhead surveillance to locate divers or boaters in distress. The agency asked Neal to install a permanent phone for emergencies.
Volunteer or vacation
Neal formed the nonprofit FPTower Inc. in late 2020. He divested his ownership of the tower in 2018 to focus on nonprofit efforts. Today, he said many anonymous donors continue to support Frying Pan.
“When you work on something yourself, you never stop working,” he said. “I started recruiting, begging and asking people to come and help me.”
Neal spends every other week, all year, rain or shine, on the tower and usually has between four and eight people to help him. FPTower Inc. is asking volunteers who wish to participate in its preservation for a recommended donation of $850 to $1,500, used for travel to and from the venue, as well as materials needed, such as cables, paint and equipment.
Volunteers help with everything from soldering to wiring to cleaning.
“The biggest problem is that people don’t believe they can be here and be part of this without having a particular skill,” Neal said.
But that’s not true, he said. People with disabilities can also be accommodated.
The Frying Pan Tower is equipped with modern amenities, such as internet, and eight rooms.
For those who prefer to experience the tower but don’t necessarily have to work while visiting, Neal rents it for an “adventure weekend,” Friday through Sunday, for $1,550. All proceeds collected are used for rehabilitation efforts.
Vacationers are responsible for their own meals and cleaning. Many amenities are listed, including fishing, skeet shooting, hitting biodegradable golf balls in the ocean, playing pool or darts, or watching the sunrise and sunset from the helipad , which occupies the entire top of the tower.
Neal said the temperate weather makes it a haven for visitors.
“It can be 95 down and a nice 82 here,” he explained. “In winter it can be freezing cold there, but it’s 55 degrees here.”
The Dauntless have even been known to dive from the highest altitude – 135 feet above the ocean – into the shark habitat below.
Marine biologists venture to use the destination to tag and monitor sharks, which orbit the tower.
The seabed within a 1 mile radius of the site is a protected reef, making it a magnet for divers.
Vacationers sign liability waivers before the trip, and Neal kicks off each adventure with a safety briefing among visitors.
“You can do stupid things here and I try to prevent that,” he said.
“It’s amazing and it’s beautiful”
Located 30 miles off the coast, there are two ways to reach the tower: by helicopter and by boat. Neal makes the trip every two weeks to get home to see his wife. When he returns, it is to restock and pick up volunteers or visitors along the way.
Helicopters are privately hired and can carry up to three people, but are limited to what they can carry per supply. It costs FPTower Inc. about $2,000 round trip by helicopter and $3,800 by boat.
The advantage of using a watercraft is that it can carry up to six people, as well as more goods and resources. The downside is that it’s a longer trip, up to eight hours depending on the boat.
Another challenge is the action required to board the tower from a water vessel. Neal said it was his job to hoist the individuals up a cable from the boat, but he was taking a leap of faith first – literally, on a rusty tower ladder.
After crossing 65 feet of handrails and climbing into the belly of the structure, he opens the doors and lowers a lifting device to the other passengers who are then individually pulled to the site.
“And we pull out 4ft by 4ft bags full of treats, gear and supplies,” Neal said, “And the occasional donated keg of beer.”
Neal confirmed that he places orders every few days or every week. Goods have traveled to Frying Pan for the past eight years from Raleigh to a regional jetport at Oak Island. A boat captain or helicopter picks up the packages for the final leg of the journey.
“Using Amazon, we get it the next day,” Neal said.
Frying Pan Tower is considered one of five remote locations that Amazon ships to.
The company’s $25,000 donation will be used to purchase more equipment, such as Neal’s underwater shark camera upgrade, which was installed about eight years ago. Right now it is offline because a cable needs to be replaced. Everyone can connect online when it works.
“A lot of people contact us and say, ‘We have it in class,’ he explained. ‘I just watch the sharks swim.’
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, which provide both information to the public.
Neal will also purchase a remote-controlled vehicle to submerge on the ocean floor, to be driven online from anywhere in the world.
“It’s a really great tool,” he says. “It can be used by marine biology researchers and help us educate about marine life.”
He would like to use it to get young students interested 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 that I learned, my god, there’s a zoo down there – and it’s amazing and it’s beautiful,” said he declared.
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