Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast is a regular feature of BBC Radio 4 and is provided by the UK Meteorological Office. Because of its unique and distinctive sound, it has an appeal much wider than those solely interested in nautical weather, and is regarded with affection by many listeners. It is broadcast four times a day and consists of reports and forecasts of weather for the seas around the British coast.

Broadcasts are at 0535 (FM and longwave), 1201 (LW only), 1754 (LW only, except weekends) and 0048 (FM and LW). The 0535 and 0048 reports include weather reports from coastal stations after the main forecast, and the 0048 forecast is unique in being the only one to feature sea area Trafalgar.

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Map of Sea Areas

The waters around the British Isles are divided into "sea areas":

Areas are always named in a roughly clockwise direction, in the order above.

The forecast has a very strict format. It begins with 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). 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) then each area's forecast is 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 (anticlockwise change). Winds of above force 8 are also described by name (see Beaufort scale) for emphasis. When severe winter cold combines with strong winds, icing can occur; if expected, icing warnings (light, moderate or severe) are given as the last item of each sea area forecast. The order that the areas appear in the forecast is fixed. The forecast has a maximum length of 350 words.

In addition, gale warnings are broadcast at other times between programmes and after news; for example That's the news, and now attention all shipping, especially in areas German Bight and Humber. The Met Office issued the following gale warning to shipping at 2206 today. German Bight, west or northwest gale 8 to storm 10, expected imminent. Humber, west gale 8 or severe gale 9, expected soon. That completes the gale warning.

Examples of area forecasts:

  • Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor.
  • Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 3 or 4. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor.
  • Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.
  • Southeast Iceland. North 7 to severe gale 9. Heavy snow showers. Good, becoming poor in showers. Moderate icing.

And most spectacularly, on 10 January 1993, when a record North Atlantic low pressure of 913 mB was recorded:

  • Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey. Southwest hurricane 12 or more.
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Icing can be a dangerous problem for ships; accurate forecasting can save lives by ensuring crews are prepared

With the information provided in the Shipping Forecast it is perfectly possible to compile (and then interpret) a pressure chart for the coasts of North Western Europe. Extended shipping forecasts (0535 and 0048) also include weather reports from a list of additional coastal stations and automatic weather logging stations, which are known by their names, such as "Channel Light Vessel Automatic". These are the Coastal Weather Stations. This additional information does not fall within the 350 word restriction. Other maritime countries also use sea area maps but with local variations. For instance, the area that the British forecasts call Dover is referred to by the French as Pas-de-Calais.

The reason for choosing BBC Radio 4 for the Shipping Forecast is not simply because it is a speech-based channel, but also because it broadcasts via longwave as well as FM, and the longwave signal can be received clearly at sea all around the British Isles. For this reason, until 1978 the Shipping Forecast was broadcast on the Light Programme and Radio 2, as they broadcast on longwave and the Home Service and Radio 4 were on medium wave.

The last broadcast of the Shipping Forecast at 0048 each day is traditionally preceded by the playing of the musical piece Sailing By, a mellow string arrangement by Ronald Binge. This is only very rarely omitted, generally when the schedule is running late. Sailing By serves as a "buffer" to ensure mildly late running schedules do not impinge on the late forcast, as well as being a vital identification tool - it is distinctive and as such assists anyone attempting to tune in. The forecast is then followed by part of the National anthem and the closedown of the station for the day.

Part of the Shipping Forecast's charm is that it is read at dictation speed by Radio 4 continuity announcers, whose speaking voices have devoted fans.

The evocation is enhanced by the fact that stormy weather is always announced first, with the introduction "There are warnings of gales in...." directing the listener's thoughts to the ships in those areas, and the people whose lives might depend on the following words.

Influences on Popular Culture

Due to its set rhythm, calm enunciation, and list of characteristic names from around Britain, the Shipping Forecast can sound quite poetic when broadcast. It is perhaps not surprising that it has featured in songs and poetry as a result.

"This Is a Low" on Blur's album Parklife includes the lyrics:

On the Tyne, Forth and Cromarty
There's a low in the high Forties

The song also contains references to Biscay, Dogger, Thames ("Hit traffic on the Dogger bank / Up the Thames to find a taxi rank") and Malin.

Radiohead uses lyrics relating to the Shipping Forecast in its song "In Limbo" to represent a theme of being lost:

Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea
I've got a message I can't read

Frank Muir and Denis Norden parodied the Shipping Forecast in a song written for an episode of Take It From Here:

In Ross and Finisterre
The outlook is sinisterre
Rockall and Lundy
Will clear up by Monday

Other popular artists who have used samples of the Shipping Forecast include Andy White who added the forecast to the track "The Whole Love Story" to create a very nostalgic, cosy and soporific sound, highly evocative of the British Isles, and Tears for Fears, whose track "Pharaohs" (a play on the name of the sea area "Faeroes") is a setting of the forecast to a mixture of mellow music and sound effects.

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

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

A recitation of the Shipping Forecast by actor Peter Serafinowicz features prominently in the Black Books episode "The Big Lock-Out".

The Shipping Forecast has also inspired writing, painting and photographic collections, notably Mark Power and David Chandler's The Shipping Forecast, and Peter Collyer's Rain Later, Good. Their critical and commercial success is a tribute both to the time and energy people are willing to invest in artistic projects inspired by the shipping forecast, and the warmth with which the public regard this regular radio announcement.

Further reading

  • The Shipping Forecast by Mark Power and David Chandler (ISBN 1899823034)
  • Rain Later, Good: Illustrating the Shipping Forecast by Peter Collyer (ISBN 0901281336).
  • Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast by Charlie Connelly (ISBN 0316724742)

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