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Life Aboard: Letters from former Frying Pan Crew Members

I was assigned to the ship on Jan. 15, 1946

It is really great to see the Frying Pan on the website. I was assigned to the ship on Jan. 15, 1946, a young 17 year old F2/c. She was at the Charleston Navy yard and we were to take her out to Frying Pan Shoals, her duty station. She had been in port during the war. It was a very enjoyable experience serving on board. I was with her until May 15, 1946, at which time I was released from the service. I intend to visit her the next time that I am in New York.

Harold G. Washburn

I am a former crew member of frying pan shoals lightship

I am a former crew member of frying pan shoals lightship, and I served aboard her while she was the relief lightship stationed at Cape May, NJ. I have often wondered what ever became of this lightship. This lightship replaced another relief lightship, WALl 519, that I also served on. I was sorry to see that frying pan had sunk. This vessel was very nice inside, and I enjoyed my duty aboard her. We had a CWO as our commander, and life on board was very nice. We had good food, we got good movies to watch, and we would spend 14 days on board and 7 days off while we were at sea. I loved to stand the radio room watch, and I always made sure I got the mid watch. Mid watch standers got to sleep in each day, while everyone else had to turn to ships work. it was great duty. Now, that I know where she is, I will try my best to visit there someday. I now live in Tampa Fl., but I am from Brooklyn, NY. If I can ever be of any assistance with stories about this ship, or of my time on board please let me know.

Sincerely yours,

Frank A. Marcia

Excerpted from a letter from Captain David Melvin

Excerpted from a letter from Captain David Melvin, former crewman aboard Frying Pan:

It was somewhat different then. The Frying Pan Lightship was built during the Great Depression 1929 & 1930 in Charleston (SC) Drydock Machine Shop. I don’t know how much detail you want but it has a long and very interesting history. I can give you names and dates of newspaper articles, copies of pictures, etc. and names of current owners through 1993 when I was last aboard her in NYC. But for now I’ll deal with life on board during my 2 year tour of 1960-1961.

We had a crew of about 15; at any give time about 9-10 would be aboard. The most senior people spent 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off. All others, this included me, spent 28 days on and 14 off except the 14 off was reduced by the logistics trip by the Sea-going tug Chilula. This trip was usually 2-4 days so in reality we were at sea 30 days or maybe 32 and off 10 or 12 days. Since I was assigned to the engine room I never even thought about the noise from the one diesel generator we had to run under normal circumstances. If we had to lift the anchor to get back on station we would of course have to run one or more of our four main engines: GM 6-71 diesel electric units. Also, if we had to run other auxiliary equipment such as the evaporator to make fresh water or the boiler during winter.

Now here’s where the fun starts. There are 2 huge compressors in the aft section of the engine room. They supply compressed air to the fog horns. During foggy days it was necessary to run the “diaphones” not only to keep ships off of “Frying Pan” Shoals but also to keep merchant ships from plowing straight into us. Understand that they set their automatic pilot to home in on our signal: if someone on watch on the other ship failed to change over to manual steering we would be goners. The diaphones were absolutely deafening and sounded a 2 tone blast every minute or less. At night in your rack you would sit straight up the 10 seconds it blew and sleep for the next 50 seconds. This is the truth as weird as it sounds. And imagine what a good night’s sleep you got!! Nonetheless it was better than the alternative.

We stood watch 6 hours on and 12 off. During the day if you were not on watch, you were expected to perform some amount of day work also. But on very rough days, we did little other than stand watches. The first few days of the 2 week tour, just after the tug brought us a new crew, water, fuel, groceries, mail and about 10 old (even then) movies. We would sometimes watch a good western 3 or 4 times in 2 weeks. We would also enjoy the fresh taste of bread, milk and vegetables, at the end of the 2 weeks it all got pretty old. We also did a lot of bottom fishing. Some we ate and some we gave the party boats; in return they would take our stamped mail ashore and mail it. It was not an easy life.

For the finale of this story, we rode out Hurricane Donna. I was on the bridge with the Executive officer, Boatswain Mate Chief Eugene Pond (now Deceased). We were watching the anemometer (wind measuring device when at 100 mph, the needle went to zero. We thought it had twisted the cable off but later we saw that it simply was blown away. We had what we estimated at 50 foot waves. We tied a line down through the interior of the vessel running fore and aft. It was our only means of not getting thrown around, we all had our life jackets on and we were literally scared to death. And we were a seasoned crew, I already had a hitch in the Navy beforehand. We took one roll of 70 degrees and didn’t know if we would right or not. The 10,000 pounds of fuel helped I’m sure.

The Frying Pan left the NC/SC border and did her last few years as a Relief L/S in the Cape May, NJ area until she was decommissioned. If you need other historical names dates and such I’ve kept a file on her but I think you just wanted to hear about life on board, I would sum it up to say it ranged from sheer loneliness and boredom, to all the excitement you could stand. I wouldn’t want to redo it but I wouldn’t take anything for the experience. I still love the sea and fish 30-40 miles offshore often. I’m a licensed charter boat captain but don’t really take parties out, only pleasure fish with friends and neighbors. You and I probably share a love of the sea. Best regards and good sailing.

Capt. David Melvin

Lightships in NYC & NJ

New Yorkers are lucky to have 4 lightships in close proximity:

  • The Lightship Ambrose (No. 87), docked in New York Harbor at the South Street Seaport.
  • The Frying Pan (No. 115), docked in New York Harbor at Pier 66 in the Hudson River Park.
  • The Barnegat (LV 79 / WAL 506), moored in Camden, New Jersey
  • Lightship Liberty (Originally Cape Lookout Shoals) (LV-107 / WAL-529), docked in Liberty Landing Marina, New Jersey

Historic New York Harbor Lightship Collision

Lightship Ambrose: Original article and photo from Sept 17, 1935 after her collision with the liner Santa Barbara. Here is an interesting article about the event:

Ambrose Captain Says He Rammed Liner to Save Ship: Lighthouse Boat Would Have Been Severed Otherwise He Says

Capt. Gustay A. Lange, commander of the Lightship Ambrose deliberately swung his vessel around to hit the Ocean Liner Santa Barbara head-on in order to save his ship from being cut in two, he testified before the Inquiry Board of the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service today.

The board decided at the close of its investigation to determine the cause of the crash. The vessels collided in the Narrows on the Bay Ridge side of Quarantine Tuesday morning but escaped with slight damage.

“As soon as I got two blasts from the Santa Barbara, I knew I couldn’t cross her bow without being cut in two,” Captain Lange said. “Then I swung to hit her head on since I knew it wouldn’t hurt the Santa Barbara except above the waterline.”

Liner Pilot Explains: William Mitchell, pilot on the Santa Barbara, was sharply questioned by Capt. George W. Fried, board member, on his judgement on signaling the Ambrose to cross his bow. The pilot replied:

“That is good book theory, but if I had passed the Ambrose to port, the maneuver would have landed me in the mud flats off Bay Ridge,” Asked if he could not have saved the situation by reversing both engines, Mitchell replied that the only thing that saved him from sinking the Ambrose was his decision to reverse the port engine of the Santa Barbara and swing her of of the way.”


Rumor Mill: Frying Pan Meets A U-Boat

Ben Steele from the Star News looks into the rumor in this article:

Q. I heard … that during World War II the light ship at Frying Pan Shoals was in the habit of radioing to the Navy every time they saw a German U-boat in the area. Then, one night, a U-boat came alongside the light ship. The captain told the light ship’s skipper that if he radioed again, the U-boat would sink him. Have you heard anything about this?

A. It’s a great story — and possibly too good to be true.

This is a new one on us, and on Wilbur D. Jones Jr., the historian and retired U.S. Navy captain, whose books “A Sentimental Journey” and “The Journey Continues” chronicle events of World War II in Southeastern North Carolina. Jones hadn’t heard that story before.

There are two problems with this account. First, the lightship, LV-115 (WAL-537), was pulled off Frying Pan Shoals from 1942 to 1945. It spent most of the war as an examination vessel stationed at Cristobal in the Panama Canal Zone and later at Charleston, S.C., where it had been built. Theoretically, such a close encounter could still have happened, sometime after Pearl Harbor in 1941 or very early in 1942.

Second, however, waters around Frying Pan Shoals are rather shallow for submarine operations. It’s doubtful a U-boat captain would have exposed his vessel where he couldn’t execute a quick, deep dive in the event of an attack.

According to Christopher G. Allen-Shinn, a historian with U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, the only documented interaction between a Coast Guard lightship and a German U-boat came during the First World War, when the LV-71 was torpedoed and sunk on Aug. 6, 1918 — and that was off Diamond Shoals, near Cape Hatteras — not off Frying Pan Shoals, and not during World War II.

A lot of folklore surrounds German U-boats along the Lower Cape Fear in World War II. One hears tales of dead German sailors (or live German prisoners) found with tickets to Wilmington’s Bailey Theater (or Southport’s Amuzu theater) in their pockets. The implication was that U-boat crews were landing and departing at will and roaming unseen among the population. (…more)

Antique Postcard Images

  • The Frying Pan
  • The Frying Pan
  • The Frying Pan

What Is A Lightship?

Lightships were used throughout the worlds seas and waterways from late 1700 to the mid-1900s. There are an estimated 15 left in the United States today. Number 115, the Frying Pan is a proud member of this historic remaining fleet.

Wikipedia gives a good definition and further information about lightships: “A lightvessel, or lightship, is a ship which acts as a lighthouse. They are used in waters that are too deep or otherwise unsuitable for lighthouse construction. Although there is some record of fire beacons placed on ships in Roman times, the first modern lightvessel was off the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the River Thames in England, placed there by its inventor Robert Hamblin in 1732. The type has become largely obsolete; some stations were replaced by lighthouses as the construction techniques for the latter advanced, while others were replaced by large automated buoys.”

Ship's That Served at Frying Pan Shoals

Frying Pan Shoal, 1860-1964

Location & historical notes: North Carolina, off the outer end of the extensive shoals marking out nearly 17 miles south and east of Cape Fear.  Served as a guide for passing clear of the shoal area in the approach to the Cape Fear River which accessed Southport and Wilmington.  The station was eventually replaced by the Frying Pan Shoal Light Tower which was established 1.7 miles and 309 degrees from the final position of the lightship station.

Lightships assigned:

  • 1854-1860: “D “
  • 1860-1863: station vacant although in 1860 the LV-8 was assigned to Frying Pan but prior to being placed on station, was seized and sunk in Cape Fear River by Confederate forces (she was later raised, repaired and towed north by tender Iris in 1866).
  • 1863-1864: LV-32
  • 1863-1871: LV-29
  • 1871-1875: LV-34
  • 1875-1877: LV-29
  • 1877-1883: LV-32
  • 1883-1888: LV-38
  • 1888-1892: LV-29
  • 1892-1896: LV-53 / WAL-501
  • 1896-1911: LV-1
  • 1911-1930: LV-94 / WAL-518
  • 1930-1942: LV-115 / WAL-537
  • 1942-1945: marked by a buoy during World War II – LV-115 moved to Panama Canal
  • 1945-1964: LV-115 / WAL-537

(our Frying Pan is LV-115 / WAL-537)