The mysteries of the shipping forecast

An unusual obsession for many residents of the British Isles is the shipping forecast. Broadcast by the BBC, four times a day, this is a weather forecast of sea conditions around Britain. It is ‘issued by the Met office on behalf of the Maritime and the Coastguard Agency’, the presenter announces each time. It covers 31 areas around the British Isles named mostly by meteorologists after geographical features. The forecast covers them in clockwise order.


map of 31 sea areas relevant to the British Isles, wikimedia commons

History of the shipping forecast


Back in the 19h century, Britain was recognized as a naval nation. The sea had been used as a way to establish and expand the British Empire. But seafaring was a dangerous affair. Sea wrecks were still common. Robert FitzRoy, a naval officer and scientist, pioneered weather forecasts at this time. He established the Met Office and the shipping forecast.

Today, Britain continues to be a sea faring nation with the sea playing an important role in trade, transport, exploration and defence.

What does the shipping forecast sound like?

In 2017, this service celebrated its 150th anniversary. The detail has changed over the years but in general the form has remained generally consistent. It has a limit of 350 words, in which the presenter informs listeners of gale warnings, general conditions, followed by specific area forecasts

This is an example of the shipping forecast with descriptions in brackets, though listeners don’t hear those.

Viking
Southwesterly severe gale 9 continuing (gale warning)
Southwesterly 6 to gale 8, occasionally severe gale 9, veering northerly 5 to 7 later.(wind)
Very rough or high, occasionally rough later.(sea state)
Squally wintry showers.(weather)
Good, occasionally poor.(visibility)

Why do we love the shipping forecast?

To someone hearing it with no knowledge of sailing or what the shipping forecast stands for, it sounds like a collection of words from a parallel landscape, far from the realities of daily life, narrated in a calming voice. There is a severe gale in Viking. It is a real place but it is far from where you are and unfamiliar. But then you start to wonder if it really is that far after all. It deserves good tidings and you find yourself hoping that the gale will pass. When the presenter finally announces fair weather in Viking on a subsequent forecast, there is a sense of hope and your anxieties of other things are eased. Maybe bad things will pass, and maybe that will allow for good things to come.

It is probably this quality of the shipping forecast – this other worldliness of a space that is real yet distant, made tangible by our desire to connect with our surroundings, communicated to us in a unique format – that has inspired artists, musicians and poets and continues to hold the fascination of many. It lulls people to sleep in the early hours of the day. Truck drivers listen to a weather forecast about sea conditions out on the road hundreds of miles away from the coast. Travellers listen to it in far away places and feel homesick for Britain.

The shipping forecast may sound a bit like avant garde poetry but is in fact a weather forecast about sea conditions around Britain. In the 21st century, there are many tools and gadgets available at hand but the shipping forecast provides a succinct and precise summary of the sea conditions. It is used by people in their sailing boats, fisherfolk, dog walkers, people enjoying water sports, the list is vast.

The presenter maintains a stable voice throughout. But, if you listen carefully, it is possible to detect an occasional hint of emphasis in the presenter’s voice – emotion or empathy, perhaps, at the thought of a real fisherman or sailor battling a storm somewhere near Plymouth. The sea sounds a formidable force to battle with during a raging storm and one hopes that those at sea will be blessed with fine weather in due course.

Laurie MacMillan reading the Shipping Forecast/preceded by the song Sailing By, the soundtrack of the Shipping Forecast

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