Sunday, February 9, 2014

"And Now The Shipping Forecast…"

"Lundy, Fastnet.  Southwest veering West or Northwest for a time 6 to gale 8, occasionally severe gale 9 in west Fastnet.  Squally showers.  Good."

Every once in a while I end up having BBC Radio 4 on when the Shipping Forecast comes on.  It's not very often, but when I hear the clearly enunciated phrase "And now the Shipping Forecast…" it seems to have an instant calming effect on me - most likely because I'm not manning the helm of a fishing trawler in a severe gale 8 many miles offshore.  These 350 words (give or take) that are broadcast four times daily at 0048, 0535, 1201 and 1754 on Radio 4 are largely irrelevant to probably around 99% of the station's listeners, and the other 1% who might put to sea for a living probably check the maritime weather forecast on the internet.  Some might argue that it's irrelevant in the modern age.  But it's an institution, lodged firmly in the national psyche;  a subtle reminder that we are an island nation that has historically relied upon the seas.      

Our ability to predict the weather at sea was the raison d'être behind the formation of the Met Office and the development of modern, scientific, weather forecasting.  In the mid 1800s the large number of ships being lost at sea caused the British Government to appoint Captain Robert Fitzroy (he of Charles Darwin/Beagle fame, as well as for being a former governor of New Zealand and having a building at the University of Plymouth where I sat through a lot of oceanography lectures named after him) to form the Meteorological Office in an effort to provide more accurate information and warnings to mariners.  
The forecast is divided up and follows a strict format: first the date, then gale warnings, the general synopsis and finally the forecast for each of the 31 areas.  Each of these areas is named for a defining feature such as an island, river or sand bank, with Finisterre being renamed Fitzroy in 2002.  The forecast for each of these areas are always read in exactly the same order circulating the British Isles in a broadly clockwise direction.  
Whether or not the Shipping Forecast is a relevant daily broadcast, when the daily news is filled with stories of the British coastline being battered by ferocious storms, enormous waves and howling winds, the Shipping Forecast - read in the calm, measured and hypnotic classic BBC style - serves as a timely reminder of our historical connection with the waters surrounding us.


  1. It's an amazing institution. Have you heard the UKIP shipping forecast? Genius!

    1. I just took a listen - that's brilliant, what a clever way to take a dig at UKIP!