MAKING WAVES - ALLEN WASTLER OUT OF THE "FRYING PAN,' A LIGHTHOUSE-SHIP SAGA TO SHIVER YOUR TIMBERS

MAKING WAVES - ALLEN WASTLER OUT OF THE "FRYING PAN,' A LIGHTHOUSE-SHIP SAGA TO SHIVER YOUR TIMBERS

If it's not haunted . . . it should be.

The light drifts in through the scarred and cracked inch-thick glass of the portholes, then dies in the darkness between the decks. The bulkheads are etched with peeling and stained paint. Barnacles cling to the ceilings and corners. Antique and rusted fixtures - an old hurricane lamp, a hand winch - stick out in the gloom. The decks, where not covered by old, ragged Persian carpets, is dark and mud-tainted. The engine room is like a dungeon, with heavily scaled chains and encrusted steel plates. Despite the wide-open spaces on the main decks, the ship seems shuttered and old and desolate.Welcome to the Frying Pan - the perfect place for Halloween.

The Frying Pan is one of the lighthouse ships that used to help vessels navigate to and from the United States - in the days before Loran and radar and electronic depth-finders. A lighthouse ship would be sent to a shoal or hazard or navigation point where a lighthouse couldn't be built - usually far out at sea. There the ship would remain with a crew of 15 - 10 sailors, four officers and the captain - supplied periodically by ships from the shore.

Life and Death on a Lighthouse Ship

Duty on such a ship, operated by the Coast Guard, could be scary. The crew would stay on in shifts of about six weeks, keeping the ship's light, mounted on a roughly 50-foot mast, burning and sending out a radio beacon to warn or signal oceangoing vessels. The ship was expected to stay on station at all times, even through hurricanes. With that in mind, the lighthouse ships were designed to take as much as a 90-degree knockdown without sinking. Hatches all had locks and heavy metal seals. There were no large windows - not even on the bridge. Just portholes, with reinforced glass. And a double hull. The ships were secure, but they had the atmosphere of a medieval fortress.

Still, the ships sank and men died. The Nantucket, a sistership to the Frying Pan, was cut in two by the Olympic, a sistership of the Titanic. Sailing through a fog, the luxury liner, which was following the Nantucket's radio beacon, didn't see the Nantucket until it was too late. All hands were lost. More men died during World War II. The lighthouse ships were a favorite target for German submarines.

The Frying Pan had its own share of death and the mysterious, according to various accounts told to its owners, John Krevey and Eric Fischer, by former crewmen. Ships were named after their station. The Frying Pan, built in 1929, was stationed on Frying Pan Shoal, 35 miles off the coast of North Carolina - the area known as Cape Fear - in waters referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. In its early days, a crewman died - he slipped on an outside gangway and broke his neck. The body had to be kept for more than a week in the ship's ''cold room," where perishable foods were stored, until the supply ship came.

In the 1950s came a freak wave. On a clear day, a wave suddenly rose up out of the east. Lookouts saw it coming toward the ship, and there was a lot of screaming and panicking as hatches were sealed and portholes closed. The rogue wave submerged the ship, going a third of the way up the light-signal mast. Then it passed, and the ship bobbed up again. The day remained clear and calm.

An Uneasy Retirement

The Frying Pan stayed on duty until 1967, when it was turned over to a museum in Southport, N.C. It stayed on display until 1984, when it was acquired for an undisclosed sum by William Hertner, an entrepreneur who hoped to resell it as a restaurant locale, according to the ship's present owners. His plan failed. He kept the ship, using it as living quarters from time to time and trying to find other buyers.

In 1984 it sank in the Chesapeake Bay under mysterious circumstances (no, Mr. Hertner did not collect any insurance money). Three years later, the Coast Guard declared it a navigation hazard and ordered Mr. Hertner to move it. A salvage company raised it. The hull had no holes, raising even more questions about how the ship sank. Mr. Hertner skipped on the $18,000 bill, then died. The salvor, looking to cut its losses, sold the vessel for $8,000 to Mr. Krevey and Mr. Fischer in 1989.

The new owners outfitted the ship with some modern navigation equipment, some generators and a diesel truck engine. After tooling around in it for a few years, they've brought it to a home on the New York City waterfront, on Pier 63 by a sports entertainment center. To be neighborly, they've painted the outside to make the ship presentable, but the inside has been kept in sunken-ship condition. The old fixtures, the dirt, the barnacles - they're all there. On Saturdays they open it to the public. Sometimes old crewmen come by. Every once in a while, ghost stories are told to children in the hold.

Is it haunted? A former girlfriend of one of the owners claimed to have awakened on board one day to see a man in one corner of the cabin they occupied. She claimed he was translucent. The man from the cold room? Maybe. ''But she was kind of fruity," Mr. Fischer said.

Mr. Krevey heard scratches against the hull one night when the ship was sailing down the Chesapeake Bay in 1989. "I don't know what it was . . . But I'm not going to say it was drowned sailors trying to scratch their way in or anything like that," he said.

Still, when one pokes around the ship, it's hard not to think of ghosts and what lies at the bottom of the sea.