MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - As 14 million tourists tuck themselves into bed at one of the Grand Strand's towering hotels, a handful of Carolina coast visitors are settling into more rustic digs: a half-century-old lighthouse stuck 30-miles off our coast.
An unlikely Carolina businessman bought the old tower at a government auction just four years ago. In fact, he was the only bidder. Today, The Frying Pan Lighthouse is almost completely booked with those looking to fill their bucket lists. WMBF News Anchor David Klugh, and photojournalist Ian Dorety took a ride out to one of the most unusual bed and breakfasts in the world.
As a warning beacon, the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower likely saved 10,000 ships from slamming into the shallow rock ledge that lines the outflow of the Cape Fear River. As a dive spot, it's given scuba enthusiasts across the Carolinas a spear fishing and sight-seeing anchorage like no other. As a fishing spot, it is a Mecca - home to a billion bait fish and Black Sea Bass, and barracuda they attract. But now, the Frying Pan Shoals Tower is turning a page and becoming a new kind of destination. It has become a life's commitment for one man, and a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for those lucky enough to experience it.
The journey to the tower could have taken flight from Myrtle Beach on board a chartered helicopter. That's the easiest way to get 30 miles out to sea. Instead, David and Ian hitched a ride with the tower's new owner, Richard Neal. He hires captains like Jeff Reid to get him and a half-ton of gear out there every other weekend. You see, this software sales engineer doesn't even own a boat. He grew up in Oklahoma and had no passion for the sea, until the tower showed up on a government auction website. After half a century of service, the feds wanted to sell it or drop the rusty platform into the sea. Neal saw something more. His $85,000 bid bought him something most would consider little more than a fantasy.
"Okay, maybe this is my mid-life crisis," Neal admits. "This is a little more expensive that a Corvette, a lot less expensive than other options, but it's certainly been an enjoyable thing."
"It's good to see it come back to life," says Jeff Reid, one of the handful of fishing boat captains used to transport customers and supplies out to the tower.
Jeff Reid is not just a preferred captain for hire, he's one of Richard Neal's biggest fans. "Every trip that I make I can see a little bit of progress that they've made, so that's a good thing for us that are fishermen."
To this day, when boaters approach the tower, there is still a sense of stability, security… something solid.
"It's a safety factor for us guys as charter boat fishermen," says Reid. "We feel really comfortable knowing there's a structure in the event that something was to happen, we've got a safe place."
Like so many other parts of the old lighthouse, the spiral stairs that once lead you up to the main deck 80-feet above the water gave in to rust. Getting there is just part of the adventure.
Everything that goes in and out of the Frying Pan Tower has to be lifted using a high speed hoist: 50 seconds top to bottom, more than 1,000 pounds a weekend. And that 1,000 doesn't include people - this is how David and Ian get up as well.
Neal remembers the first time he entered the 5,000-square-foot living deck. It sat vacant of any human contact for nearly a decade - it was as if the Coast Guard just walked away. And they pretty much did, as the advent of satellite navigation made this tower obsolete almost overnight.
"I walked into 1960. It smelled like 1960, in a good way, a barber shop or something like that," says Neal.
The smell may be gone, but the decades of wear and tear seem an overwhelming project. There are also parts of the tower, the catwalks underneath the structure, some stairways and walkways surrounding the flight deck, that are not safe. For those who love a renovation project, this seems off the charts.
"First of all you sit down and you get over being overwhelmed," says Neal. "Because if you looked at the entire thing, you'd say what my wife said, she said, 'how are we going to do this?' And the best answer I had for her then is my answer now, and that is: we're not gonna do this. It's gonna be a bunch of people helping."
Yes, amazingly, none of the work being done to restore the tower is costing Neal a dime. Volunteers like Kelsey Claiborne couldn't wait to come on board. Claiborne is a hospitality management major at the University of North Carolina.
"I'm really into the adventure aspect of it," says Claiborne. "I like doing anything that's out of the norm or that requires you to kinda step out of your comfort zone."
David talked to Kelsey inside one of the 30,000 gallon rainwater tanks that will eventually add to the fresh water supply there. She'll be helping to scrape the rust out first. And when her three weeks of volunteering are up, she'll have something on a resume that will stand high above the sea of other graduates.
"They don't get too many applications I'm sure that say I've worked in the middle of an ocean at a Bed and Breakfast."
Some might have a hard time calling this an inn. It is still in pretty rough shape. But you know what they say about the value of real estate: it's all about location!
And there lies the interest in this amazing piece of history, and its appeal as a destination for the real adventurer. On this weekend, two families are staying in six of the tower's 8 rooms. Their $500 a piece weekend includes, well, pretty much your room, and one heck of a view.
With all the rust, all the peeling paint, all the popping floor tiles, this bed and breakfast is like nothing you've ever experienced before. It'll take you an hour or two just to take it all in before you realize what you're doing there and why. But once you do, You realize you've found one for the most unique places on earth.
The sky's the limit on how you can occupy your short time there. But it is truly a sportsman's paradise. The flight deck becomes the perfect skeet range or driving range by day, and a star gazer's wonderland by night. Many guest choose one of the deck's hammocks to let the constant breeze whisper them to sleep, and every morning rewards an early riser with a sunrise that seems to go on forever.
Despite the current condition of the tower, guests become fans very quickly. Rick Stoker spent years fishing around the tower, admiring it as most from a distance during its days of active service.
"There were men hanging everywhere, painting and grinding and welders," remembers Rick Stoker. "There was activity here and helicopters and I was like wow! Such a monument to the local guys."
On the weekend that David visited, his dream of spending time up there with friends will go down as one of the greatest joys in his life.
"I mean I can't believe I'm standing here talking to you. And my boat is sitting here on a buoy for me to go down in the morning and get in and go to stream in just 30 minutes instead of two and a half hours."
Fishing, whether it's from a boat or from the tower walkways, is practically a guarantee of fresh seafood. And the adventure here continues when it comes to breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Mealtime is as unique as the tower itself. There are no chefs here. Guests decide what they want from the refrigerator, freezer and pantries, or from what they brought or caught themselves, and then start cooking.
There are no rules and no limits. If it's here and you can make a meal out it, put your skills to the test.
As for the rules of owning this tower, Neal says the government gave him exactly three:
"I am not allowed to actually drill for oil, even though it's not an actually drilling rig," starts Neal. "I'm not allowed to alter the marine fisheries. In other words, I can't turn it into some fancy fish farm. I'm not allowed to break any international laws."
Neal admits, there's no time for any of that. Many say this 47-year-old will be lucky to have time to ever complete the renovations and repairs to this tower. He still works full-time as a software sales engineer in Charlotte. But for Neal, it's all about the journey, about seeing others contribute to a project that will always be bigger than one man, and about offering the kind of adventure you can find in only one place.
"Every one of us has a certain amount of time here. And when that time is up and done, the last thing you want to think of in the last days or weeks or minutes is why didn't I do this, why didn't I do that. Well since everyone of us has that, why don't you live like that right now? And that's what we're doing right now," Neal says.
It's unlikely Richard Neal will profit from the Bed and Breakfast at the tower for years. He'll tell you that's not even on his radar. But he is on the radar of half a dozen government and private agencies, including NOAA. Because of the tower's unique location, Neal has been approached to allow full-time cameras, weather forecasting equipment, even devices that will help prove whether the earth it actually warming over time.