10 Lesser Known Facts About The Distress Signals Used By Ships In Danger

As one of the earliest modes of transport, man has been sailing ships for centuries now. It comes as no surprise, then, that the distress signals used widely today first originated on the seas.

Of course, the earliest calls for help were nowhere near as efficient as the ones we use today. Flares and flags were of little help to a sinking ship once out of visual range, and so were gradually replaced by better technologies over time.

Here are some lesser-known facts about these signals that have saved countless lives.

1. When Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless telegraphy at the turn of the century, it gave troubled ships a lifeline for the first time.

A stranded crew could now exchange electromagnetic messages via Morse code.

2. The first wireless distress signal was sent on March 17th, 1899 by a German cargo ship called the Elbe to the East Goodwin Lightship when they ran aground in fog.

It brought a Ramsgate lifeboat to their assistance.

3. One of the first radio distress signals, CQD, was introduced in January 1904.

Transmitted in Morse Code it means ‘All Stations, Distress’.  The CQ comes from the French “Sécurité” (Secu = CQ) and the D stands for distress.

Despite Marconi’s push for “CQD,” not all nations were in favour of the distress signal. The Americans used “NC,” which meant “call for help without delay.” The Germans used “SOE,” and the Italians preferred the unmistakable “SSSDDD.”

4. An international distress signal was desperately needed, so delegates at the second International Radio Telegraphic Conference decided on “SOS” on October 3rd, 1906.

The SOS was formally introduced on July 1, 1908.

5. SOS is actually not an acronym and does not stand for Save Our Souls.

It was chosen simply for its ease of transmission and its unmistakable characters in Morse Code: three dots, three dashes, three dots, or “· · · – – – · · ·”
For obvious reasons, it is entirely incorrect to put full stops between the letters.

6. SOS was used for the first time by the Cunard liner SS Slavonia on July 10th, 1909.

Everyone on board was rescued, including some of the cargo.

7. CQD was the initial call that helped to save 700 lives aboard The Unsinkable Ship in 1912.

On the night of 14th April, Titanic’s junior wireless operator Harold Bride used the old distress signal first before he joked to senior operator Jack Phillips that it might be his last chance to use SOS – the new distress call.

Sadly, he was right. Phillips went down with the ship.

8. A spoken distress call of ‘Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan’ is designed to communicate an urgent problem that does not carry a threat of immediate loss of life.

9. The call ‘Mayday’ is derived from the French m’aider’ for “help me.”

It is the most urgent distress signal and communicates immediate life-threatening danger to those on board.

10. In 1999 a new satellite-based system known as the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System replaced the age-old Morse equipment for sending distress signals at sea.

Today, GPS-based devices like the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB), are used to send coded messages to emergency services at the press of a button via the 406 MHz frequency. The signal is accurate to within 50 metres.

Guess it’s time to do away with the old fear of being lost at sea, huh?


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Amanda Francesca Mendonça

After spending pretty much all of my teen years waiting for a Hogwarts letter that never came, I gave up and settled for being a wizard with words instead. A hopeless romantic, when I’m not penning down short stories, I’m busy imagining my own happily ever after.

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