When the S.S. Vestris foundered off the Virginia Capes in 1928 with the loss of 110 lives, it wasn't for lack of a telegraph officer urgently tapping out Morse code.
But the SOS came too late -- by six hours, the British Board of Trade later decided. The victims, including Capt. William J. Carey, may have died because he delayed ordering the chief wireless officer to send his distress signal.
The dramatic story of the overloaded Liverpool ship -- its rolling in huge seas, its agonized calls for help, its death plunge and the rescue by other ships of two-thirds of the passengers and crew -- illustrates the role Morse code has played for a century in saving thousands of lives at sea.
Morse code, as of Feb. 1, is no longer the formal communications mode on the high seas. Replacing it is the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, known as GMDSS, using both satellites and high-frequency radio, which is now required by the International Maritime Organization for ships over 300 tons and ships that carry 12 or more passengers in international waters. The system pinpoints the location and identity of a stricken vessel and tells whether it collided, exploded, caught fire, capsized or is in other peril.
But Thomas J. "Sparks" O'Brien, a free-lance radio electronic officer, is keeping his telegrapher's key. He learned Morse in the Air Force in 1946, later became a hobbyist ham radio operator and since 1994 has had jobs at sea. His business card reads "Any Ship, Any Ocean."
"Morse is far from dead," says O'Brien, 71, of Annandale, Va. He is second radio officer for Baltimore's Liberty ship, S.S. John W. Brown, which is being outfitted with GMDSS equipment. He teaches captains and mates the new computer-driven GMDSS, a 70-hour course over two weeks.
Ships of Western Europe, North America and some Asian countries began navigating with the new high-tech system in 1992. That year only a dozen distress calls out of 53,000 used Morse code to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help. Others came by way of radio, teleprinter and other means.
Yet hundreds of freighters and some passenger ships owned by companies in Cuba, South America and Africa still use Morse code. Other users are ham operators, spies and those in extreme situations, such as the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. American prisoners of war in North Vietnam tapped in Morse on their cell bars.
New technology, of course, never guarantees safety. Just last month, a 74-foot, steel-hulled clamming boat, the Adriatic, sank off New Jersey after a mayday was garbled. Four fishermen disappeared. Divers found the wreckage and located the boat's $900 EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon), designed to give a worldwide distress call showing position and identity. It was in its holder, perhaps malfunctioning.
Last week's change reminded salts of the colorful history of wireless Morse SOS's sent out in thousands of rescues, including that of the Lamport and Holt Line vessel, the Vestris.
The 10,494-ton ship was on a Christmas voyage from Hoboken, N.J., to Argentina. It carried 325 crew and passengers, 6,000 tons of heavy equipment and 3,000 tons of coal. Stevedores in Hoboken overloaded the ship by 200 tons, the Board of Trade would rule.
The ship quickly headed into a Northeaster. The pounding continued all night. After daylight, Captain Carey finally gave the order to send an SOS by Morse code. At 8: 37 a.m., chief wireless officer Michael O'Laughlin, using the system of dots and dashes invented by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1832, sent a CQD warning: Other ships, keep listening.
Then, before 10 a.m., about 240 miles east of Norfolk, O'Laughlin began sending this series of plaintive messages:
"Vestris in distress."
"Hove to since noon yesterday. Last night developed a 32-degree list. Starboard decks under water. Ship lying on beam ends. Impossible to proceed anywhere. Sea moderately rough."
"Oh, please come at once. We need immediate assistance."
"Rush help. We are sinking slowly."
The last message was: "We are taking to the lifeboats."
Just before the vessel sank, Fred Hansen, a crewman, took the classic photograph of terrified people in marine peril.
Like the increasingly distressed calls from a sinking ship, Morse code, maritime radio's original form of communication, has been dying bit by bit for a generation.
In August 1993, the U.S. Coast Guard ended its round-the-clock monitoring of the 500-kilohertz frequency for Morse distress calls after almost 90 years.
The French Coast Guard said goodbye to Morse signals in 1997 with a misty-eyed flourish: "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence."
Morse is no longer mandatory for Boy Scouts, who for almost a century sent messages by many methods: flashlight; mirrors reflecting the sun; buzzers; telegrapher's key on ham radio; or by a single flag (to the right is a dot, to the left a dash).
The first message was sent May 24, 1844, over a line from the Capitol in Washington to Baltimore: "What hath God wrought!" (The Bible, Numbers 23: 23). Morse had converted the alphabet into a system of dots and dashes to send telegraph messages over land lines. European nations revised the code in 1851 and it gained widespread acceptance. By the way, "Baltimore" is the phonetic way to specify the letter "B" in International Morse.
Morse is sent by a human finger pressing a spring-loaded lever-like key on brass. Operators, called "brass pounders," refer to dots and dashes as "dits" and "dahs." A journeyman can do 50 words a minute. SOS is "ditditdit dahdahdah ditditdit." SOS itself means nothing but was picked as easy to remember.
Those in the know, like O'Brien, hear a certain beautiful rhythm of letters, words and sentences. "It's a language," he said. "Those who speak it are a close fraternity."
By 1861, telegraph lines connected the American continent. By 1866, trans-Atlantic cable linked America and Europe.
In the 1890s, Guglielmo Marconi developed the wireless telegraph, which was quickly applied to communicating at sea -- between ships and between ships and land. Wireless aided a rescue in the Strait of Dover in 1899.
A dramatic early American rescue was recorded on Jan. 23, 1909, when the Lloyd-Italiano liner Florida rammed the White Star liner Republic 26 miles southeast of Nantucket. Jack Binns, the Republic's radio officer, flashed an urgent Morse message. A Marconi operator on Nantucket relayed the message. Though the Republic sank, rescue boats responded and 1,650 survivors were saved from both ships. Binns' name became synonymous with doing one's duty.
On April 15, 1912, another "Sparks," John G. Phillips, a telegrapher on a westbound ship on the North Atlantic run, sent out his ship's last signal: "CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD DE MGY MGY." MGY was the call sign of the R.M.S. Titanic.
Telegraphers ended their messages with --30--. It means "I have no more to send."
Pub Date: 2/08/99