Dot and dash no more for ships on the seas Coast Guard ended an era by wishing its Morse code users 73, code for 'best regards.'

April 01, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

As the Titanic gulped sea water on that awful night in April 1912, radio operator Jack Phillips was at his station, pounding out an SOS on the ship's radiotelegraph key in Morse code.

Eighty-three years later, some ocean-going ships still rely on Samuel F. B. Morse's language of dots and dashes to maintain their links with shore and potential rescuers.

But last night, the U.S. Coast Guard stopped listening.

"The chilling SOS signal will never again be received," the Coast Guard said in a farewell message at 7 p.m. yesterday, when communications centers from Chesapeake, Va., to Kodiak, Alaska, shut down all Morse code operations in favor of modern technologies.

Morse invented the code to carry messages on his telegraph machine, which he patented in 1840. The first intercity message was transmitted from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844. The message was: "What hath God wrought."

Last night, the Coast Guard closed its 15-minute farewell to mariners, "We bid you 73 [best regards]. What hath God wrought."

The last 45-minute regular broadcast in Morse code actually went out at 6 p.m., with Atlantic weather information.

Since 1901, when the wireless radio-telegraph was invented, Morse service had provided mariners with weather and safety information and a 24-hour ear for their distress calls. At the end, 30 operators across the country monitored Morse frequencies and continued to broadcast with hand-operated keys.

Today, the job of communicating with the few hundred ships that still use Morse code has been transferred to a network of private shore stations under contract to the government.

In 1999, when international treaties require all shipping to convert to modern technologies under the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, even the private listening posts will cease the Morse service.

"I'm the guy who's shutting it down," said Lt. Adolph L. Keyes, telecommunications policy section chief at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington.

The remaining "radiomen," now male and female "telecommunications specialists," are shifting to other duties.

Lieutenant Keyes estimated that 90 percent of ocean-going shipping now receives Coast Guard services over modern radio-Teletype machines and computers.

"It is more efficient and provides better coverage and more reliability," he said. "And it's somewhat more user-friendly and less labor-intensive."

Some old-time Coast Guard radio operators aren't so sure.

"They think [the new technologies] are going to fail when the going gets really rough," said Cmdr. Freddy Montoya, commanding officer of Communication Area Master Station Atlantic, in Chesapeake.

"They say the EPIRB won't start, or the SITOR will break and

there will be nobody to fix it," he said. EPIRBs are Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, and SITOR is Simplex Teletype Over Radio.

"And everybody is in agreement that the old dot-and- dash is the easiest signal to pull out of the atmosphere," he said.

Wink Wingender, 57, of Glen Burnie, worked Morse code keys on weather ships and at shore stations from 1954 until 1967.

The end of the era "makes me sad," he said.

"Code was reliable. It got through all the static and everything else when other things couldn't. But it could never pass the amount of traffic they send today," he said.

Skilled operators began to think in Morse, he said.

"You become an automatic machine. I've heard stories about guys almost falling asleep, and their hands are still moving."

But even a top gun, tapping out one letter at a time, could send only 40 or 50 words a minute. Morse could never compete with modern technologies that zip whole pages out to sea in seconds.

"You can't stop progress," said Mr. Wingender.

"The new satellite systems are unbelievable."

An ancestor of the modern Coast Guard -- the federal Revenue Cutter Service -- adopted Morse's telegraph and code in 1878 to transmit messages on wires between shore stations.

The cutters began using wireless telegraph in 1903.

On Dec. 10, 1905, a ship foundering off Nantucket Shoals broadcast the first Morse code distress call received by the Coast Guard. The word "Help," was heard by a radioman on the Relief Lightship 58, anchored at the shoals, and rescuers were dispatched.

During Prohibition, liquor smugglers used the radiotelegraph and Morse code to help them outfox the government's revenue cutters, said Joseph Gardner, a Marylander and former Coast Guard radioman. He was the keynote speaker at last night's closing ceremonies in Chesapeake.

In 1930, he said, rum runners operated about 50 illegal shore stations within 10 miles of New York City, and paid skilled operators as much as $10,000 a year.

The Coast Guard developed better equipment and used the smugglers' intercepted radio messages to track them down.

The improvement in ship-to-shore communications has continued. Today, the merchant ships of major seafaring nations use an array of radio systems, known by acronyms like SITOR, NAVTEX, INMARSAT and SafetyNET.

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