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Coastguards send their last messages in Morse code

Any mariner thinking of learning Morse code to send out that vital SOS message might be better off practising their breast stroke. From midnight tonight no one will be listening. Stephen Goodwin, Heritage Correspondent, reports on the decline of a mechanical language.

Farewell messages will be tapped out in dots and dashes tonight from Land's End, Port Patrick, Cullercoats and Wick as British Telecom ceases its Morse code watchkeeping on the emergency 500kHz wavelength.

Satellite communication has superseded the code devised 160 years ago by the American painter Samuel Morse. And for all the sentimentality surrounding a system where skilled operators claimed to be able to recognise a woman's touch over the airwaves, the new technology is far superior.

Morse, as a language of distress, is following semaphore into maritime history. The Royal Navy ceased training sailors in the use of the code for wireless transmission last summer, although it still preserves the skill for sending signals by flashing lamp. Messages were sent by lamp during the Falklands War - unlike radio signals, they are not vulnerable to electronic surveillance.

As for semaphore, sending signals by holding a flag in each hand at designated positions, RN spokesmen contacted yesterday could not recall when that ended. Signal flags are still used by the Navy to dress ships overall, run up the "England expects" command on HMS Victory and for practical warnings when a vessel is clearing mines or loading munitions.

Amateur sailors are required to learn neither Morse nor semaphore. "Do the Sea Scouts still learn semaphore?" wondered the Royal Yachting Association which trains people in the use of radio telephones and other modern technology such as the emergency beacon which a year ago saved the life of yachtsman Tony Bullimore.

Samuel Morse sent his first message by telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington in 1839. "What hath God wrought," it said. It took Marconi's invention of wireless telegraphy to make the code of any use to shipping, but within only a couple years it was saving lives. The first Morse-initiated rescue was just 100 years ago when the Deutschland ran aground on the Goodwin Sands off Dover.

The code is credited with saving the lives of many who took to the lifeboats when the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912. The liner first sent out the CQD - come quick, disaster - call sign in use at the time and then switched to SOS: dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. The Carpathia picked up the message.

Morse was used to announce the ceasefires after two world wars, and was instrumental in the arrest of Dr Crippen - the American poisoner was the first criminal caught through the use of radio telegraphy.

Commercial and other uses of Morse will continue, for example through BT's long-range station at Portishead in Somerset. What is ending at midnight is the monitoring carried by BT on behalf of the Coastguard service. Messages picked up by the four coastal stations were routed to Stonehaven, in north- east Scotland, where a team of six kept a 24-hour watch. Fortunately, in recent years they have had other radio duties since the last Morse message relayed to the Coastguard was in June 1996, from a Russian passenger vessel off Aberdeen.

Alastair Taylor, the Stonehaven station manager, admits to a certain nostalgia for Morse. "All of us here are ex-merchant or Royal Navy who used it on board ship. Morse gets through anything, whatever the radio static," he said. But very few ships still have radio officers who are capable of sending Morse. It is too expensive for the owners to train them when there are alternatives that are easier to use.

Under a ruling of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Morse must be replaced by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) - using satellites - by February 1999. The United States stopped its Morse watch in 1993 and the French followed suit last February. Under the modern systems, distress messages arrive direct to the Coastguards complete with an exact position and details of the vessel. As Roger Kohn, head of information at the IMO in London put it: "We are replacing a horse and cart with a Ferrari."