The Origin of the Mayday Call

Between The Ears: Seelonce, Seelonce :This was a fascinating broadcast on BBC Radio3 by musician Tim van Eyken, dramatist Joseph Wilde and producer Juilan May on the history of the distress call.

They began with the origins of distress calls; when the telegraph was invented, they used SOS, the initials of Save Our Souls, but when radio transmissions began to replace them, the SOS was not distinct enough, so in 1923 Fred Moffatt at Croydon air traffic control was asked to come up with and alternative. 90% of flights went from Croydon to Bourget, Paris, so he needed to devise something that was acceptable to the French as well as theBritish. He chose the French word meaning ‘help me’, which sounds like English Mayday, and was acceptable to both. It has since been accepted as the worldwide signal of people in imminent danger of death.

What surprised me was that there is a lesser alarm call, for those in lesser distress. It was used by one of the broadcasters when he was on a boat in the Thames when the engine died. Nobody on board was in grave danger, but the river is a busy waterway, so he used the call Panpan which got a life boat to tow them out of danger. This is another French term meaning breakdown. The Thames sailor spoke of how he felt he had been treated maternally by the lifeboat. There was no question of them not helping. With the radio, they were not alone any more.

The program took us to the National Maritime Operations Centre for the coastguard, 36 desks manned at Fareham. They are responsible for the area of sea around Britain and Ireland, in conjunction with Ireland and various European countries, into the mid Atlantic, so a huge area for search and rescue. The centre challenges the notion that with all our hi tech equipment, we should be in control, but there they are often working blind. Some people who work at sea – especially fishermen – are unwilling to ask for help, to send out distress calls, preferring to try to fix things themselves, so by the time they do make the call, it could be too late. When they do call, they might talk of ‘having a bit of a problem’ when their boat is already sinking. Mention was made of how unwillng people were to ask for help, yet that is the purpose of the emergency services.

There was also mention of the terrifyingly high rate of male suicide – another group who are often unwilling to ask for help in time.

People at sea should have UHF radio, on which channel 16 is used for distress calls, so this is constantly monitored by the rescue services. When a distress call is found, there is a set response to it, the first and most important of which is their position. Then how many people, and the nature of the emergency. Advice is then given on how to help themselves, ie lifejackets, liferafts, etc. when a mayday call is heard, the emergency services again use a French term, ‘seelonce, seelonce, Mayday’. Telling people to keep the channel free for the emergency to be managed.

Woven into this story about emergencies at sea were items on life and death. Of when a baby is born, there is silence when it summons the strength to omit its first cry, the cry for help, for comfort. A woman spoke of how she had given birth to a stillborn child, and how deep the silence was when the cry did not come. And how tense the expectation, and then the relief when her second child uttered its first cry.

There was an enactment of an old woman who lived alone waiting for emergency services after a fall in her bathroom, the story of how she came to be alone, her refusal to move to a home, how this fall probably meant the end of her independence.

A midwife spoke of the parallels between life and death, of how they are common to us all, we cannot control them. How life begins with a cry for help, and how the cry is diminished at the end, but both require similar response.

The undertaker and writer Tom Lynch described how a death in a family is an energency, that action was required. He spoke of how a call in the middle of the night meant he had to act. His wife once murmured, ‘I hope that’s a death’. Undertakers are often forgotten when we think of emergencies, as they cannot help the living, but death requires assistance for the living as well as the dead. Lynch spoke of serving the living by caring for the dead. A good funeral helps to get the dead where they need to be.

Interspersed through the show was Jackie Oats’ The Isle of France, but I can’t get a copy of this for you  to listen to.

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