Save Our Ship?… Save Our Souls?
Like many innovations, the SOS meaning and call was born out of necessity.
There was no international morse code distress call that could be sent quickly and easily… and also be so simple that it would be difficult to misinterpret.
In 1906, the International Wireless Telegraph Convention convened in Berlin and the delegates were tasked with establishing the new international standard distress call.
Previously proposed suggestions were considered again but thought to be too cumbersome… ultimately it was Germany’s “…—…” that was selected and the SOS meaning established.
With three dots, three dashes and three dots, it could be sent quickly and easily and was hard to misinterpret.
It also has the added benefit of being a palindrome… a series of letters that read the same backward and forward…
And SOS looks the same upside down as it does right side up … making it ideal to view from the air when written on a beach.
SOS Meaning Decided
It went into effect on July 1, 1908 and has since been believed to be an acronym for Save Our Ship, Save Our Souls and other variations. That’s lead to SOS being written as S.O.S. which is incorrect because SOS is not an acronym for anything… the true SOS meaning.
In truth, the signal isn’t even really supposed to be three individual letters.
It’s just a continuous Morse code string of three dots, three dashes, and three dots all run together with no spaces or full stops (…—…).
But since three dots form the letter “S” and three dashes form an “O” in International Morse Code, the signal came to be called an “SOS” more for the sake of convenience.
In 1918, the Marconi Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony confirmed the lack of meaning behind the letter choices…
“This signal [SOS] was adopted simply on account of its easy radiation and its unmistakable character. There is no special significance in the letters themselves…” There is no special SOS meaning.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
How did the mayday call then evolve for extreme distress on planes, ships and yachts?
Like the SOS meaning, it started with another problem. As voice radio communication slowly became more common… so an equivalent to the Morse code SOS distress signal was needed.
A word like help wasn’t a good choice for English speakers because it could be used in normal conversations when no one was in distress.
In 1923, senior radio officer Frederick Stanley Mockford was based at Croydon airport in London, England.
He was asked to think of one word that would be easy to understand for all pilots and ground staff in the event of an emergency.
Because much of the air traffic he was dealing with was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris… he proposed the word “Mayday” from the French “m’aidez” …. a shortened version of “venez m’aidez” meaning come help me.
Four years later in 1927, the International Radio Telegraph Convention of Washington made Mayday the official voice distress call used only to communicate the most serious level of distress such as with life threatening emergencies.
It’s traditional to repeat mayday three times in a row so it is easily distinguished from a message about a mayday call.
Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan
In situations where a vessel requires assistance but not from grave and immediate danger or distress… a call using the words Pan Pan is appropriate.
It means you need help but you don’t need support people to necessarily drop what they’re doing right that instant to come and help you… as you do need with a mayday call.
Like Mayday, Pan Pan is the anglicized spelling of a French word. In this case it’s Panne which means broken, failure or breakdown.
Good convention again says to repeat it three times… Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan.
Securite, Securite, Securite
And finally, let’s round out the whole topic with the Securite call… just like the French word securite.
It’s the radio “urgency” call used to alert mariners to navigational issues like floating objects hazardous to navigation.
It’s also used as an introduction to the broadcast of gale and storm warnings and is of course repeated three times.
Now to wrap up everything on a positive note… with fair winds, kind seas and good luck, you’ll hopefully never use any of these calls… but now you do know the true SOS meaning. It’s another page in the book of seamanship and you’ll find one factual article like this in every issue of Switched On Sailing Magazine.
Dream… Explore… Discover…