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Does Maritime Distress Calls SOS Mean "Save Our Ship"?

Updated on March 1, 2010

The general populace believes that "SOS" signifies "Save Our Ship," that is not the case, it was merely a code call, the radio signal of SOS was ...---... repeated at brief intervals. Another signal CQD preceded the use of "SOS" as maritime distress calls. The birth of the great tradition was on account of its easy radiation and its unmistakable character of this signal, and with the help of the tragedy of Titanic.

Tragedies such as the loss of the Titanic might very easily have been avoided if Radar had been known at that time. Wireless had begun to form part of the equipment of most big ships at that time and it played a part in this case in bringing about the rescue of nearly a third of those on board the ill-fated liner.

The Titanic, greatest and most luxurious liner of her day, so well built that she was regarded as unsinkable, left Southampton on her maiden voyage on April loth, 1912. On the following Sunday night everything was well, but a quarter of an hour before midnight something caused the ship to heave. There was nothing startling in that first shock, but the Titanic had struck an iceberg, cutting through the bottom of the ship and smashing many of her watertight compartments.

There was no panic. Few indeed realised fully the danger that threatened and developed with such dreadful swiftness. Wireless messages were sent out and the sixteen lifeboats were manned and lowered. Women and children were ordered into them first and not till then were any men allowed in the lifeboats. The ship's band came on deck and played till the end. At 2.30 a.m. the Titanic stood on end and slowly slipped down into the dark waters of the Atlantic.

Right to the end the wireless operator sent out the distress signal and kept in touch with all possible rescuers. In so doing he created a tradition for a service then in its infancy, and his fine example has been followed whenever the necessity has arisen. Seven ships answered the call, but the ice hampered them. The Carpathia, 70 miles away when the S.O.S. came, steamed to the scene as quickly as possible. All those in the lifeboats were eventually found and taken on board, but they numbered in all only 711. More than twice that number, 1,513 persons, went down with the ship.

It is well documented in personal accounts of Harold Bride, second Radio Officer, and in the logs of the SS Carpathia menttioned above, that the Titanic first used "CQD" to call for help. When Captain Smith gave the order to radio for help, first radio officer Jack Phillips sent "CQD" six times followed by the Titanic call letters, "MGY." Later, at Brides suggestion, Phillips interspersed his calls with "SOS."

So, what does "CQD" mean? Although generally accepted to mean, "Come Quick Danger," that is not the case, either. It is a general call, "CQ," followed by "D," meaning distress. A strict interpretation would be "All stations, Distress."

In the U.S. Senate hearings following the Titanic disaster, interrogator Senator William Smith asked Harold Bride, the surviving wireless operator, "Is CQD in itself composed of the first letter of three words, or merely a code?" Bride responded, "Merely a code call sir."

In the Service Regulations Affixed to the International Wireless Telegraph Convention, paragraph 6a, "Signals of Transmission" states: "Ships in distress shall use the following signal: ...---... repeated at brief intervals."

The Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony , 1918 states, "This signal [SOS] was adopted simply on account of its easy radiation and its unmistakable character. There is no special signification in the letter themselves, and it is entirely incorrect to put full stops between them [the letters]." All the popular interpretations of "SOS," "Save or Ship," "Save Our Souls," or "Send Out Succour" are simply not valid. Stations hearing this distress call were to immediately cease handling traffic until the emergency was over and were likewise bound to answer the distress signal.


Newnes' Pictorial Knowledge, Volume Eight, page 48


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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 5 years ago from The High Seas

      Very interesting. Bravo.

    • Tusitala Tom profile image

      Tom Ware 7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Meee is incorrect. You, Jim Sheng, are right. As an old Morse Operator I can only concur. CQ is still the general call for 'any one out there hearing this?' Or 'all stations receiving this.' But just as we have SOS as top priority, there were also XXX and TTT calls. And XXX might refer to man lost overboard, a TTT to a navigational hazard, such as a shipping container lost overboard.

      The equivalent calls in radio telephony are (or were) Mayday, Mayday, Mayday; Pan, Pan, Pan, and Security, Security, Security.

      It is rare to receive any of these calls, and in the twenty-five years I served as an R.O. I took only two distress calls from aircraft, and they didn't use Mayday, just got straight into a description of what had gone wrong, e.g. "Losing height, going to have to crashland, et cetera.

    • profile image

      meee 7 years ago

      no its