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What are Frying Pan Shoals?

Ben Steelman

The Frying Pan Shoals are a line of shallow sandbars extending from the southeastern tip of Bald Head Island (the actual Cape Fear) southward for more than 28 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Long a menace to navigation, the shoals prompted the building of two lighthouses, the anchoring of several lightships and the erection of a Texas tower near the southern tip over the years. These days, the shoals are especially popular among sport fishermen, and heavy catches of bluefin tuna are often reported there.

Since 2003, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has marked the site with a 3-meter discus buoy, with a meteorological payload, located about 8.22 miles southwest of the existing Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower. The buoy is officially designated Station 41013, and its coordinates and data can be accessed online.

The shoals appear as early as 1738 on James Wimble’s map of North Carolina, noted as the “Cape Fair Shoals.” They are marked as the Frying Pan Shoals on Abram Collet’s 1770 map and on the 1808 Price & Strother map of the Cape Fear. Looking at the charts, it’s pretty clear how the shoals got their name; they’re shaped like a long-handled frying pan.

Formed by silt from the Cape Fear River, the shoals form an underwater extension of the Cape Fear River. Their exact position is sometimes hard to specify since, like beach sand, the shoals tend to shift periodically. Dozens of shipwrecks have been documented in the area, and unwary crews still occasionally run aground.

Because of the threat to shipping, lightships were stationed at Frying Pan Shoals from 1854 to 1964, with interruptions during the Civil War and World War II. The first, Lightship D, was on station from 1854 to 1861, when it was removed to Fort Caswell and burned by Union forces on the night of Dec. 30-31, 1861. A first-order lightship, it mounted two light 40 feet above the water level.

The Navy Department tried to dispatch Lightship No. 8 (formerly the USS Arctic) to replace it, but the vessel was seized by Confederate forces and converted into a receiving ship and later a floating battery. In December 1864, it was sunk in the Cape Fear River channel about 3 miles south of Wilmington as an obstruction to federal invaders. Salvors raised the hulk in June 1866 and took it to the Cassidey and Beery shipyard in Wilmington, where it was refitted as a lightship. It was removed from the Cape Fear in May 1867 and was used as a relief ship until it was condemned in 1878. (The ship had a chequered career; as the Arctic, it was originally rigged with an ice-reinforced hull and in 1855 was dispatched north to help search for Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated polar expedition.)

Lightship No. 28 resumed the Frying Pan Shoals station in 1865; it was the first vessel to have “Frying Pan Shoals” painted in large letters on its hull. Like Lightship D, it carred two lights 40 feet above sea level.

A number of other lightships followed. The longest-serving was the ninth and last, the 133-foot Lightship No. 115 (WAL-537), built in Charleston, S.C. in 1929, which was on station at Frying Pan Shoals from 1930 to 1942 (taking time out during World War II as an examination vessel) and from 1945 to 1964, when it was formally replaced by the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower. The ship then served a year as a relief lightship at Cape May, N.J., before being decommissioned. In 1967, it returned to Southport where it was operated as a floating historical museum on the waterfront until 1984. Sold to private operators who used it as a floating oyster cannery, it capsized and sank in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay in 1986 and remained underwater for three years. Eventually raised, it wound up at Pier 66A in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where it became a floating bar, once listed as one of “New York’s Best Party Places.” During Operation Sail 2000, it was refitted and used as a lightship again for three days in New York harbor.

Replacing the lightships in 1964 was the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower, a 125-foot-tall Texas tower, built in Louisiana, located 28 miles south of Southport and manned with a Coast Guard crew until 1979. The Coast Guard maintained an unmanned weather station on the tower until 2003. The tower suffered severe structural damage in Hurricanes Fran and Floyd, and plans were announced to demolish it as early as the mid-1990s. At one point, it was suggested the tower be turned over to the University of North Carolina Wilmington as a marine laboratory. In March 2009, the U.S. General Services Administration sold the tower to Shipwrecks, Inc. for $515,000. The South Carolina company announced plans to use the tower for charter dives, as a sport-fishing base and for oceanographic research. The deal fell through, however, after Shipwrecks Inc. failed to make a down payment. Louis Mancuso of the GSA’s Atlanta regional office said on Aug. 14, 2009 that the agency plans to reoffer the tower in the future, pending the results of a Coast Guard inspection.

Dissatisfaction with the lightships led to the erection of two lighthouses to mark the Frying Pan Shoals. The Cape Fear Lighthouse, a 150-foot iron “skeleton” tower, was completed on the southern end of Bald Head Island in the summer of 1903, going on service on Aug. 31, 1903 with a revolving first-order Fresnel lens. The tower was demolished in 1958; the concrete bases of its four “legs” can be seen today. The 158-foot Oak Island Lighthouse, activated in 1958, took its place.

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One Response to “ What are Frying Pan Shoals?”

  1. On July 8, 2009 at 2:48 pm Jack Fryar wrote:

    On some of those early maps Ben refers to, Cape Fear was penned as “Cape Faire,” leading to speculation by some that the real name of the cape reflected a much more pleasant place than its modern spelling would indicate. Alas, the “Cape Faire” spellings originate more in the fact that spellings were quite often inconsistent in the early exploration period than in the more realtor-friendly description of “Faire.” Rest assured, as far as mariners were concerned, our cape – which includes Frying Pan Shoals – is and has always been, Cape Fear.

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