British use of the familiar dots-and-dash Morse system officially ended in December 1997 and the new distress system will mean its phasing out worldwide. The new method - which all main British shipping operators already have in place - is called the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.
It is an integrated communications system using satellite and terrestrial radiocommunication to ensure that no matter where a ship is in distress, aid can be dispatched.
Under International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules, all passenger and cargo ships of more than 300 gross tons on international voyages have to carry specified satellite and radiocommunication equipment for sending and receiving distress alerts, maritime safety information and for general communications. The new system also requires ships to carry satellite emergency positioning indicating beacons ,which float free from a sinking ship and alert rescue authorities to the ship's identity and location.
"We now have in place a system which should ensure that no ship in distress can disappear without trace and that more lives can be saved at sea," said the IMO's secretary-general, William O'Neil.
Morse was invented by Samuel Morse, a Massachusetts portrait painter, in the 1830s.