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The Lightship With Nine Lives

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

An exploration of the LV-115 by Old Baldy Visitor Services and Collections Associate McAllie Givens.

Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Off the southeastern point of Bald Head Island where Cape Fear is formed lies the Frying Pan Shoals, an innocuously named thirty-mile stretch of shallow sandbars that, without the help of navigational aids, proved deadly to mariners for centuries. These constantly changing shoals, considered part of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, off the coast of North Carolina, became the last resting place of many vessels attempting to travel up and down the coast. To prevent further loss of life and livelihood, the U.S. Lighthouse Service stationed the first lightship on Frying Pan Shoals in 1854. For the next 110 years, nine different lightships were stationed at the shoals thirteen different times. Arguably the most famous of those lightships, LV-115, was the final ship stationed to protect mariners along the Atlantic Coast. Known colloquially as the Frying Pan Lightship, or WAL-537 by the Coast Guard, LV-115, was stationed off the coast of Bald Head Island two different times between 1930 and 1942 and again between 1945 and 1964. Not only a lightship, Frying Pan lived through many different incarnations, including as an examination ship during WWII, as a relief vessel for a short time, an attempted floating museum in Southport, and has twice been resurrected after sinking due to negligence, all before being moored on the Hudson River where she rests today.

Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

On October 4, 1928, the Bureau of Lighthouses commissioned Charleston Dry Dock and Machine Co. out of Charleston, South Carolina, to build LV-115. LV-115 was completed between 1929 and 1930 and was officially placed out on Frying Pan Shoals on July 15, 1930. While moored out on the turbulent shoals, Frying Pan Lightship weathered many storms, including Hurricane 12, regionally known as the 1933 Outer Banks Hurricane. The crew reported that the wind blew 80 to 100 miles per hour at their station on Frying Pan Shoals.

In 1942, the Frying Pan was replaced by a buoy when recalled from her station to serve as an examination ship during World War II. Between 1942 and 1945, LV-115 was stationed at Cristóbal, near the Panama Canal. The crew aboard the ship were responsible for examining and verifying merchant ships entering or departing the port. Her Panamanian commander, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Clarence Samuels was a trailblazer for minorities as one of the first non-white commanding wartime officers of an American naval vessel. Following the end of WWII, LV-115 returned to her station on Frying Pan Shoals. Once again the crew members aboard LV-115 had to ride out treacherous weather. Captain David Melvin, a former crewman aboard the Frying Pan, recalled the wind blowing so hard that the anemometer blew away during Hurricane Donna in 1960, before blowing the lightship nearly 14 nautical miles south of its station. His experience aboard the Frying Pan “ranged from sheer loneliness and boredom, to all the excitement you could stand.” The lightship remained in her position off the coast of Bald Head Island until 1964, when the USCG replaced it with a “Texas Tower” called Frying Pan Shoals Tower. The lightship was used as a relief vessel for a time at Cape May, New Jersey, before being decommissioned in 1967. Instead of being scrapped, as so many other decommissioned naval vessels are, the Frying Pan began its new life outside of military use.

Following her military decommission, the Frying Pan was acquired by the City of Southport and was eventually moored at the foot of Howe St. Mary Strickland, a former city Alderman, became one of the key leaders of a committee created to oversee the ship’s preservation and eventual use as a museum, before founding the Southport Maritime Museum, now the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport. In an interview for the State Port Pilot in 2017, Strickland reminisced about her family and her riding on Frying Pan as it was pulled south from the Elizabeth River marina. Despite expensive efforts to preserve and convert the vessel into a museum, the ship maintained severe structural issues which caused her to lean, take on water, and eventually sink. The costs associated with salvaging the floating museum from the Cape Fear River prohibited the City of Southport from attempting its resurrection, and they finally decided to sell.

Between 1982 and 1983, the City of Southport sold Frying Pan Lightship to Charles B. Herter, Jr., a ship salvager and tug operator from Norfolk, VA. According to Herter, part of the purchasing price included raising the vessel and towing it away. Herter towed LV-115 up to Whitehaven, Maryland, where he docked it at a private dock along the Wicomico River sometime in 1983. Herter hoped to restore the vessel, possibly turning it into a restaurant or shops. Unfortunately, Frying Pan Lightship met the same fate as she did in Southport. In early January of 1984, LV-115 keeled over for a second time. Herter’s office blamed the sinking on water pouring through the missing brass rimmed portholes that had been stolen since the ship was towed up to Whitehaven. Others have speculated that a pipe burst on a cold day. Whatever the reason may have been, the Frying Pan remained underwater for several years until she was purchased by her current owner, John Krevey.

Krevey bought the former lightship for $8,000 in 1987 and spent countless hours repairing her with the help of his friends. By the early 1990s, Krevey had relocated the ship to New York City, where it remains today at Pier 66a in Manhattan, NY. In 1999, Frying Pan Lightship was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today one can visit Frying Pan lightship and enjoy a drink or light snack at the pier and enjoy the view on the historic Hudson River.

As described by Krevey, “while the outside of the ship has been restored to her original appearance, the inside retains the barnacle-encrusted, sunken-ship motif that acknowledges her storied past.” One could say that Frying Pan Lightship is nearing the end of her nine lives. Until then, we hope her remaining lives are as exciting as the ones she has lived before.

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