The SOS distress signal has been a staple for emergency communication for 110 years, and although communications technology is very different now to the days of Morse Code, the term is still widely used today.
The SOS distress signal was the work of the British Marconi Society and the German Telefunk, who established it at the Berlin Radio Society on October 3, 1906 – although it wasn’t properly introduced until July 1, 1908.
To celebrate this landmark occasion, we take a look at some of the interesting SOS facts from across the last 110 years:
SOS does not stand for anything
Contrary to popular belief, SOS does not stand for ‘save our souls’ or ‘save our ship’. Nor does it mean ‘send out succour’. SOS actually stands for nothing at all.
SOS was selected purely because it could be very easily transmitted in Morse code during distress · · · – – – · · · (dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot). Only later did the likes of ‘save our souls’ emerge.
The SOS signal was first used in 1909
SOS was formally introduced on July 1, 1908 and almost a year later it was used by the Cunard liner SS Slavonia on July 10, 1909 during a shipwreck off the Azores, Portugal.
All on board were rescued, and some of the cargo – which included 400 bags of coffee, 1,000 ingots of copper and 200 casks of oil – were salvaged from the wreckage before it was completely abandoned.
SOS took a while to be adopted
Even though the SOS distress signal was made official in 1908, it took some time to be widely adopted. So much so that in 1912, the radio operator aboard the striken Titanic used the old CQD distress signal first before he joked that they may as well do the new SOS distress signal too as they may never get a chance to try it again.
When we bought our catamaran, she came with the name Makara. We could, of course, change the name of the boat. Even though it is considered by some as terribly bad luck, there is a delightfully elaborate ceremony that you can perform (as we did to change Tadd’s original sailboat from Praxithea to Third Aye) to appease the gods of the elements and the great Neptune. But as Makara didn’t pose the difficulty of having to constantly spell the name out to all the world over the radio, and because we liked it, we chose to keep the name (and just change to home port to Key West).
So What Does Makara Mean?
Makara, chosen by the previous owners, means ‘sea dragon’ or ‘aquatic-monster,’ in Sanskrit (मकर). Long thought to be a mythical creature in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, paintings and sculptures of this fantastical creature are found in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan — practically everywhere in Asia.
In India Makara is known to be the vahana (vehicle) of Ganga-devi – the goddess of the river Ganges and the vahana of the god of the sea, Varuna. And in Hindu astrology the Makara is also the astrological sign of Capricorn. A little research reveals this strange mythical creature to have been very popular both in ancient times and in our present day.
The Makara is often depicted with the head of a crocodile, horns of a goat, the body of an antelope and a snake, the tail of a fish or peacock and the feet of a panther. Varuna is said to be the only one who can control the Makara and does not fear them.
Makara are considered guardians of gateways and thresholds, protecting throne rooms as well as entryways to temples; it is the most commonly recurring creature in Hindu and Buddhist temple iconography, and also frequently appears as a gargoyle or as a spout attached to a natural spring. Makara ornaments are a popular traditional wedding gift for the bride; these makara-shaped earrings called Makarakundalas are sometimes worn by the Hindu gods, for example Shiva, the Destroyer, or the Preserver-god Vishnu, the Sun god Surya, and the Mother Goddess Chandi. Makara is also the insignia of the love god Kamadeva, who has no dedicated temples and is also known as Makaradhvaja, “one whose flag depicts a makara”.
The leading Hindu temple architect and builder Ganapati Sthapati describes Makara as a mythical animal with the body of a fish, trunk of an elephant, feet of a lion, eyes of a monkey, ears of a pig, and the tail of a peacock. A more succinct explanation is provided: “An ancient mythological symbol, the hybrid creature is formed from a number of animals such that collectively possess the nature of a crocodile. It has the lower jaw of a crocodile, the snout or trunk of an elephant, the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the darting eyes of a monkey, the scales and the flexible body of a fish, and the swirling tailing feathers of a peacock.”
All in all a pretty cool name for a boat… so we’ll keep it!
When Tadd and I talk to people about our planned adventures sailing around the world, starting with crossing the Atlantic next spring, they are typically surprised that we’re so excited about the prospect of being out in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from land. Of course there is a scary element to launching on any offshore voyage, but like anything in life, preparation is everything. And a big part of that prep is safety equipment, from lifelines running from bow to stern of the boat (so that we can be tethered to the boat at all times) to auto-inflating lifejackets on all people on deck, and from exposure suits (it’s damn chilly out there!) to a “ditch bag” all packed with emergency items, first aid, gps and food etc, to be grabbed at the last moment before abandoning ship (should the worst happen… remember, always step up into a life raft!). So last year Tadd invested in one more safety device, which until now has been used for fun rather than any emergency!
We have a Delorme inReach, which is what allows friends and family to check here on our site and see where we are. It’s a small but great device… so great this amazing piece of innovation was, of course, acquired by the giant, Garmin. But as fun as it has been, it will be a great comfort to us during our major journeys, and here’s precisely why:
“Less than halfway through his 3,400 mile solo trip to Ireland, novelist Michael Hurley’s sailboat began taking on water. What could have easily become a tragic tale was saved thanks to his inReach, which he had brought on the trip to stay in contact with family and post to social media. Michael used his DeLorme inReach to send out a distress text which the Coast Guard relayed to all vessels in the area, including Michael’s exact coordinates and bearing. Help arrived less than two hours after the signal was sent. Now Michael says he’ll make sure to bring his inReach with him whenever he plans to go off the grid.” To read more…
Although we generally avoid the touristy side of Key West, there’s nothing like a good sunset from Sunset Pier. The coolest thing was when I noticed that the hotel’s lighting was offering some nice, warm, subtle illumination, so I set up the picture to take advantage of the chance to light us up, while still catching the last of the sunset in the background.
Every once in a while we decide to go play tourist in Key West, typically when friends come to visit, or if we manage to catch a “locals day” at one of the attractions (when we get to go for free!). We enjoyed the Butterfly Conservatory here in Key West once before just before sailing away to Mexico in 2009, and thought it was time to check it out again. All the vibrant, fluttering butterflies are really amazing, but what was most impressive this visit were the pair of stunning flamingos. The male was very much intent on wooing his lady!
Over the years when we are sailing in Key West, Florida, one way or another we always seem to end up back out in the city mooring field, surrounded by other cruisers, as well as some serious sea dogs who don’t ever move off their mooring ball.
On Sunday December 12th and Monday the 13th, we finished up some needed repairs on Makara’s fuel tanks. As forecasted, the wind blew hard from the south during that time. We decided to wait until 11 am on Tuesday at high tide to depart, as the winds were forecast to turn, or “clock” to the west. The previous owner, Tyler, agreed to come along and show us how things worked as we sailed along.
The six-foot waves from the south were tough to sail against, and beating to weather is never fun. We kept on a somewhat comfortable angle to the wind and waves for the rest of the day. We were definitely not heading directly to our destination in Southport, NC but we were sailing! We headed offshore.
Apparently, a solo sailor on a forty foot boat was about 60 miles offshore and in distress at the same time we were heading out to sea! I can only assume he was heading south like everyone else and was off Cape Hatteras over the weekend’s heavy weather. Anyway, his distress call was heard and he was airlifted as you can see in this video. I could be critical and try to assume why he got into trouble but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
THEN, about 12 hours later, we spotted flares coming from the direction of Camp Lejeune. It may have been explosions from military exercises, we don’t know. That’s why when we saw several long-lasting amber flares at about the same time in the direction of the open sea, about 30 or 40 miles offshore, we thought they were more military exercises. Then we heard a call from a passing military vessel by the name of Button. They were asking if we had heard a distress call, as they could not make it out clearly and were no longer getting the transmission. We told him we saw flares but thought they came from them! The radio man aboard the military ship Button said, no, they were not their flares. The flares were well off their stern when they saw them. They then proceeded to relay the distress call to the Coast Guard in Charlotte, SC. They also hailed a freighter that was passing the area where the flares were seen. Because we don’t have a very powerful VHF like a military or Coast Guard vessel does, we didn’t hear any more about those flares. We were too small to assist anyone in that weather so we were not asked to do anything, in case you were wondering if we were supposed to help.
It seems weird there were two emergencies twelve hours apart in the same area. Lindsay mentioned there might have been a mixup in the am and pm of the reporting on this story. There is a very good chance we saw this man’s flares that night. This is quite possibly “b-roll” of previous rescues, as that is in the title on the Coast Guard website. As Captain Ron says “Nobody knows!”
We are glad he is safe and it is unfortunate he left his vessel at sea.