The Fascinating History Of The Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast is a familiar broadcasting institution, which has fans far beyond the world of maritime voyagers. In fact, this unlikely piece of factual programming has a cultlike status, which is loved, parodied, and listened to religiously by people from all walks of life, both at home and abroad.

So, how did it all begin, and why has it grown to have a life far beyond its functional purpose? It was first broadcast over 155 years ago, on 24 August 1867. It moved to the BBC Radio 4 longwave station in 1924, where it is still issued four times a day, in precise three-minute-long bulletins.

However, it was first broadcast as a series of telegraphs to coastal towns, an initiative brought about by one of the world’s first meteorologists, Admiral Robert Fitzroy. After a devastating storm off the coast of Anglesey, Wales claimed the lives of 400 seamen in 1859, Fitzroy was determined to set up a regular weather warning service.

The weather predictions are useful information for many of course, including commercial fishermen and trawlermen, sailors, and the many people who use the sea and coast for recreational purposes. The conditions around the British Isles are unpredictable, with frequent gales, fog, rain, and abrupt changes in wind direction.

As well as gale and storm warnings, the forecast includes information on visibility, the movement of pressure systems, pressure tendency, and the sea state (with ‘phenomenal’ meaning wave height of more than 14 metres. Yikes). The forecast covers 31 zones, beginning in the far north and progressing clockwise around the British Isles.

The valuable, and often life-saving information that is broadcast is listened to by many people who rarely set sail, and have never visited any of the areas in the forecast. It has acquired a cult following among listeners who find the place names romantic, mysterious, or soothing. Some people even say it helps them to drop off to sleep.

The broadcast certainly has a poetic rhythm to it, partly because the announcer must not exceed the allotted three minutes. The place names are familiar, and yet most of us only have a vague idea of where they are, or what they are like. They are offshore zones of sea, which were designated by the Met Office.   

The names have an evocative effect on the listener: “And now, here is the shipping forecast. There are warnings of gales in Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, German Bight and Humber. The general synopsis: Low, Rockall,9 7 3 moving northwards, losing its identity by same time. New low expected Malin by that time.”

Viking is a zone off the Norwegian coast, while Forties, Dogger, and Humber flank the North East of the British Isles. Rockall, Malin, Shannon, and Fastnet surround the island of Ireland. From poets such as Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy, to comedians such as Stephen Fry, the shipping forecast is listened to for inspiration as much as information.

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