The Shipping Forecast went live on the radio 100 years ago. What began as a sea-faring broadcast has grown into a lullaby for sleep—and a beloved institution
Back in 1994, that nascent year that prompted Cool Britannia, the UK seemed to be riding a hedonistic high not seen since the mid-1960s.
Oasis sang about cigarettes and alcohol; celebrities, models and pop stars were photographed falling out of London’s Met Bar. Danny Boyle made a film about heroin which had a poster and soundtrack CD that no bedroom belonging to someone aged between 15 and 25 could be without.
But amid the tequila slammers, retro trainers and Trainspotting was a very different kind of song; one that climaxed arguably the most venerated album of the era.
“This Is A Low”, the penultimate track on Blur’s Parklife, was four minutes of quintessential Englishness bedding down, unforgettably, with pathos. The lyrical subject matter that frontman Damon Albarn chose was the Shipping Forecast:
“Hit traffic on the Dogger bank/Up the Thames to find a taxi rank/Sail on by with the tide and go to sleep/And the radio says/ This is a low. But it won’t hurt you/When you are alone/It will be there with you/Finding ways to stay”
Albarn seemed to know that, behind the shiny façade, England remained, even amid Britpop, an isolated place; an island whose coastline is fraught with tempests and mystery.
From the Met Office, with love
For exactly 100 years now, the Shipping Forecast has kept mariners safe at sea from the storms and deep, watery unknowns Damon sang about.
But this strangely dislocated meteorological mantra means so much more to people, even those whose connection to the waters that surround Britain doesn’t extend further than taking the ferry to Calais once a year to buy duty free.
“It is a trusted forecast, and not automated or of dubious quality, so it’s kind of like the gold standard. All vessels, even huge ships, will be affected in a hurricane.”
So says Chris Almond, a meteorologist who leads on marine forecasting for the Met Office, the Exeter-based national weather service for the United Kingdom.
Chris is part of the team that compiles the Shipping Forecast on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, before the BBC broadcast it—four times a day on longwave radio and twice a day on FM, DAB and also on the internet.
"This strangely dislocated meteorological mantra means so much more to people"
Although neither the BBC nor the Met Office seem to know how many people actually listen to the forecast, it’s somnambulistic qualities in solving insomnia—or simply being a comforting ever-present in people’s lives—have been vouched for over the decades.
The likes of Dame Judi Dench, who chose the forecast when she appeared on Desert Island Discs, and Stephen Fry, who lovingly lampooned the forecast in the 1980s with a surrealistic broadcast which contained lines such as, “…Shetland, Jersey, Fair Isle, turtleneck, tank-top, quite misty, seasickness,” are just two names to sing its praises.
“I’ve heard a few misunderstandings before,” says Chris at the Met Office. “Firstly, that it’s made up just to sound good! Others think it is written by a computer or by the BBC. And I suspect a lot of people probably don’t realise the very strict terminology and structure of the forecast, and the exact meaning of the terms.”
The first sound of land
But the scientific information imparted is just the spume that lightly flicks over the sand when it comes to the true strength of the forecast and the hold it has over so many of us.
Gazing into the depths of the night, a seascape of indigo swept by a distant lighthouse beam, the Shipping Forecast is as much a hymn to our seafaring island as it is a formal meteorological bulletin.
“While I will always bang the drum for the shipping forecast’s primacy as an instrument of safety at sea, it has been part of the soundtrack of my land-lubbing life for as long as I can remember,” says Charlie Connelly, a London-based author who travelled to every area on the Shipping Forecast map for his book, Attention All Shipping, which is being republished in January.
“The forecast invokes a comforting nostalgia whenever I hear it,” says Charlie. “I’m far from being alone in that—I’ve been contacted by scores of shipping forecast fans over the years sharing their love of it; I’ve also heard from people abroad who find it a reassuring reminder of home.
"I remember talking to the captain of a cruise ship at Leith docks once who told me that when he first picks up the Shipping Forecast on long wave, when he’s heading east across the Atlantic, he experiences a surge of emotion every time, realising that he’s nearly home.”
The end of an era
Before the Shipping Forecast, there were infinitely more deaths at sea than there are today.
After a tempest in the Irish Sea storm in 1859 destroyed more than 100 ships and killed hundreds of men, Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy, founder of the UK’s Meteorological Department, designed a telegraph maritime storm-warning system in 1861.
It was only on New Year’s Day, 1924, that the Air Ministry began a daily “Weather Shipping” broadcast over its frequency signals.
In October of the following year, the nascent BBC took over broadcasting the bulletin, a four-times daily routine that, in slow, impartial, non-emotive tones read by a Radio 4 announcer, gives us the incoming weather conditions for all the areas on the Shipping Forecast map.
The names of these areas, from German Bight to Dogger to Fastnet to Lundy, are the armature of the modernist poetry of the forecast; starting in the North-East of the map in Viking and ending in the North-West of the map with South-East Iceland, taking in 31 sea areas en route.
To the horror of many forecast lovers, the traditional long wave form of communication is about to be severed when the BBC shuts down its long wave transmitters this year.
"The traditional long wave form of communication is about to be severed when the BBC shuts down its long wave transmitters"
Critics claim that the forecast is a vital back up for mariners should their more modern digital tech fail. Could ships manage without the forecast at all in 2024?
“The smaller the vessel, the lower the wind speed that affects them generally,” Chris Almond explains.
“The Inshore Waters Forecast (which has the same basics as the Shipping Forecast but contains more local detail for all around the UK coast) focuses warnings on winds reaching F6 (strong winds) and above.
"This is more relevant for smaller craft, whereas the Shipping Forecast issues warnings for F8 (gales) and above, which is of more interest to larger boats.”
So the forecast would seem to still be a pretty vital tool. Though the Met Office hasn’t always got it right. Back in 1979, 19 people died in the Fastnet Yacht Race, after the Shipping Forecast failed to predict the ferocity of incoming storms between Land’s End and Fastnet.
The Met Office believes advances in technology mean such an erroneous forecast could never happen today.
It’s a view substantiated by stats that show Britain loses, on average, fewer than 200 people a year in the seas around the UK; a remarkably low number given that thousands of people are out there at any one time on ferries, cruise ships, cargo vessels, trawlers and yachts.
Midnight music and a companion for sleep
Although traditionalists will always claim that the Shipping Forecast sounds best on slightly muffled long wave, the joy of the bulletin for its most loyal devotees comes not with the frequency, but with the timing.
It’s the 0048 forecast, preceded by the soothing tones of “Sailing By”—a piece of instrumental string music by Ronald Binge (actually composed to be the musical soundtrack to a 1960s BBC documentary about a hot air balloon race)—that is where the true soul of the Forecast lives.
To listen is to embrace a contemplative sense of looking at distant horizons with a rhythmic, habitual calm.
"Shipping Forecast is a calm, authoritative voice coming out of the darkness like a beacon of safety"
It’s all but impossible to tune in without conjuring up a picture of someone, alone with his vessel, clutching his sou’wester closer to his chest, throwing a damp cigarette butt overboard before clomping back down below deck.
The whip and slather of storm and fog enveloping him amid a century of epithets and latitudes, navigating and intoning, imminently and intimately.
“It is best heard tucked up in bed, safe and sound, hearing about violent storms and hurricane force gales and giving thanks that you’re not out there,” concludes Charlie Connelly.
“If you are out there, the Shipping Forecast is a calm, authoritative voice coming out of the darkness like a beacon of safety, ensuring that even in the middle of a raging sea, you’re never alone.”
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