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