Saturday, 2 May 2009

Attention all shipping......

Unlikely as it may seem, the BBC Shipping Forecast is a national institution.

It is broadcast four times a day and provides detailed information on the condition of seas and coastal waters surrounding the UK and beyond for sailors and coastal dwellers alike. For sailors it provides a necessary and vital vehicle for their safety, for others it has a more mystical potency.

With our island status and strong historical links to the sea, the UK has a traditional interest and respect for all things maritime. The Shipping Forecast attracts hundreds of thousands of listeners who have no direct need for its meteorological guidance and encapsulates the mystery, power and romanticism inherent with living on an island country.

I particularly find the well-known repetition of the names of the sea areas almost hypnotic, particularly during the bedtime (for Britain) broadcast at 00:48 UK time.

Controller of BBC Radio 4 Mark Damazer describes the Shipping Forecast as a prose poem saying;

“It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s mysterious because not many know where these places are, it takes you to a faraway place you can’t truly comprehend.”

The forecast for each shipping area is read out according to a strict format.

Gale warnings (winds of force 8 or more, on the Beaufort scale), if any (e.g. There are warnings of gales in Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, and Fair Isle). This sometimes follows the opposite format (e.g. There are warnings of gales in all areas except Biscay, Trafalgar and Fitzroy).

The General Synopsis follows, giving the position, pressure (in millibars) and track of pressure areas (e.g. Low, Rockall, 987, deepening rapidly, expected Fair Isle 964 by 0700 tomorrow).

Each area's forecast is then read out. Several areas may be combined into a single forecast where the conditions are expected to be similar. Wind direction is given first, then strength (on the Beaufort scale), followed by precipitation, if any, and (usually) lastly visibility.

Change in wind direction is indicated by veering (clockwise change) or backing (anti-clockwise change). Winds of above force 8 are also described by name for emphasis, e.g. Gale 8, Severe Gale 9, Storm 10, Violent Storm 11 and Hurricane force 12.

The word "force" is only officially used when announcing force 12 winds.

Visibility is given in the format Good, meaning that the visibility is greater than 5 nautical miles; Moderate, where visibility is between 2 and 5 nautical miles; Poor, where visibility is between 1000 metres and 2 nautical miles and Fog, where visibility is less than 1000 metres.

When severe winter cold combines with strong winds and a cold sea, icing can occur, normally only in sea area Southeast Iceland; if expected, icing warnings (light, moderate or severe) are given as the last item of each sea area forecast.

The forecast is then read out in the following typical format:

Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor.

The Shipping Forecast has also inspired writing, painting and photographic collections and notable inclusion in contemporary poetry.

Seamus Heaney wrote a sonnet "The Shipping Forecast", which opens:

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:

Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux

Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,

Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.

The Carol Ann Duffy poem "Prayer" finishes with the lines:

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer —

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

I wish you all fair weather and a pleasant weekend.

Just a footnote, the reading of the forecast is not accompanied by music as in the YouTube clip.


  1. Hello Michael,

    Although I haven't listened to the shipping forecast for a long time, I certainly remember it from years gone by - eventhough it had no direct relevance! 'Finisterre' is one name that I find wonderfully mysterious!

  2. There is a farm belt version of your shipping news. Probably does not conjure up all those images of ships at sea and wake raked coasts but when I lived in the heartland and had a 30 minute commute to work I would tune in my car radio and imagine the farmers over morning coffee wondering if they should bring in the wheat today or chance another day of fair weather before harvest. See the John Deere tractors being warmed up in the barns before the forecast rain hit.

    I found something quite meditative about the even voice of the announcer going through the temperatures, winds, humidity, rising or falling barometers. It usually ended with stock reports - hog futures and grain prices.

    I very much enjoyed your blog about the shipping news and the memories it evoked for me.

  3. Yes Derrick..Finisterre always makes me think of a shady character out of the St Trinians

    I would love to hear a farm belt version of the shipping news Lady J, seems only right when you have states bigger than my country...smiling.

  4. I found this absolutely fascinating, M. I have such a love for all bodies of water. I closed my eyes, sipped my coffee, and became lost in the names and the report itself...

    I did notice that there are two, maybe three persons reading the forecast. Is this because there are several forecasts combined for the sake of the video, or because more than one person does actually report?

    I also just love Sir John Betjeman's poem at the close of the video. His line "I stand exultant, neutral, free"...and his description of the sea as "huge and consoling" capture the essence of my thoughts when I am taking in the ocean..

    Sigh....I think its time for a visit to my native home of San Diego.

    Excellent M....thank you.

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  6. Hello Jacqueline...yes, the voices are combined for 'artistic' reasons I think...
    I'd swop the Pacific Ocean, San Diego for the North Sea any day of the week.

  7. Wonderful for Sunday a.m. listening. All these comments about coffee reminded me I completely forgot to brew mine as I perused the blogs. Now I have a nice cup and have listened to the shipping news. I think I'm ready for my day.

  8. Michael..came to your blog via Willow's, and I found this post very interesting. I have a good friend who is an ex pat from London. I love learning new things like this! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Michael, this is just so interesting! I read it last night, and once again tonight. I want my husband and older son to see this! Great post!

    I read your comment at Derrick's regarding his tribute poem to soldiers. I am not sure I remembered your son had been twice to Iraq. We have that in common, as parents. It's ok to be going politely insane....I am with you, buddy! (smiles)