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The Shipping Forecast is a BBC Radio broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the coasts of the British Isles. It is produced by the Met Office and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The forecasts sent over the Navtex system use a similar format and the same sea areas. The waters around the British Isles are divided into sea areas, also known as weather areas (see map below) There are four broadcasts per day at the following (UK local) times:
The unique and distinctive sound of these broadcasts has led to their attracting an audience much wider than that directly interested in maritime weather conditions. Many listeners find the repetition of the names of the sea areas almost hypnotic, particularly during the night-time broadcast at 0048 UK time.
In October 1859, the steam clipper Royal Charter wrecked in a strong storm off Anglesey; 450 people lost their lives. Due to this loss, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy introduced a warning service for shipping in February 1861, using telegraph communications. This remained the United Kingdom's Met Office primary responsibility for some time afterwards. In 1911, the Met Office had begun issuing marine weather forecasts which included gale and storm warnings via radio transmission for areas around Great Britain. This service was discontinued during and following World War I, between 1914 and June 1921, and again during World War II between 1939 and 1945.
Today, although most ships have onboard technology to provide the Forecast's information, they still use it to check their data.
The sea areas covering the waters around the British Isles are as defined by the map shown here:
The areas were already roughly as listed above by 1949. Later modifications include the introduction of Fisher in 1955, when Dogger was split in two. Heligoland was renamed German Bight a year later. Around 1983, the Minches sea area was merged with Hebrides. In 1984, the areas in the North Sea were coordinated with those of neighbouring countries, introducing North Utsire and South Utsire and reducing Viking in size. Finisterre was renamed FitzRoy (in honour of the founder of the Met Office) in 2002, to avoid confusion with the (smaller) sea area of the same name used in the marine forecasts produced by the French and Spanish meteorological offices. Some names still differ; for example, the Dutch KNMI names the area equivalent to Forties after the Fladen bank, while Météo-France calls the English Channel sea areas Dover, Wight, Portland, and Plymouth respectively Pas de Calais, Antifer, Casquets, and Ouessant.
In the forecast, areas are named in a roughly clockwise direction, strictly following the order above. However, a forecast for Trafalgar is found only in the 0048 forecast - other forecasts do, however, report when there are warnings of gales in Trafalgar.
The coastal weather stations named in the shipping forecast (and numbered on the map) are:
The Shipping Forecast includes a 'general situation' update for the British Isles, followed by a forecast for inshore waters of the United Kingdom, divided by area. These areas are:
An extract of the area forecasts
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The forecast, excluding the header line, has a limit of 370 words, and has a very strict format. It begins with "And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at xxxx today." This format is followed quite strictly, although some continuity announcers read out the actual date of issue as opposed to the word "today". 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 at or above force 8 are also described by name for emphasis, i.e. 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 (9.3 km; 5.8 mi); Moderate, where visibility is between 2 and 5 nmi (3.7 and 9.3 km; 2.3 and 5.8 mi) nautical miles; Poor, where visibility is between 1000 metres and 2 nautical miles and Fog, where visibility is less than 1,000 m (3,300 ft). 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.
Examples of area forecasts:
And most spectacularly, on 10 January 1993, when a record North Atlantic low pressure of 914 mb was recorded:
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 (0520 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 370 word restriction. (RTÉ Radio 1 broadcasts similar coastal reports for Ireland). The extended forecast also includes an inshore waters forecast.
In addition, gale warnings are broadcast at other times between programmes and after news; for example
When giving a gale warning the Met Office will indicate a time interval for when they expect the gale to occur. Imminent means that a gale is expected within 6 hours, Expected soon that a gale is expected within 6 to 12 hours and Later in more than 12 hours time.
The reason for choosing BBC Radio 4 for the Shipping Forecast is because it broadcasts via longwave and the signal can be received clearly at sea all around the British Isles regardless of time of day or radio conditions. For the same reason, the Shipping Forecast was broadcast in the BBC National Programme until September 1939, and then after the Second World War on the BBC Light Programme (later BBC Radio 2) until November 1978: these services all being broadcast on longwave. When BBC Radio 4 took over the longwave frequency from Radio 2 on 23 November 1978, the Shipping Forecast moved to Radio 4.
The last broadcast of the Shipping Forecast at 0048 each day is traditionally preceded by the playing of "Sailing By", a light orchestral piece by Ronald Binge. This is only very rarely omitted, generally when the schedule is running late. Though occasionally played in full, it is common for only a section of the piece to be broadcast; that section being the length required to fill the gap between the previous programme's ending and the start of the forecast at precisely 0048. More importantly, Sailing By serves as a vital identification tool - it is distinctive and as such assists anyone attempting to tune in. The forecast is then followed by the National anthem and the closedown of the station for the day, with the BBC World Service taking over the frequencies after the pips of the Greenwich Time Signal at 0100.
HM Coastguard's broadcasts can only be heard by vessels or persons using or tuned into marine VHF and MF radio frequencies, whereas the Shipping Forecast can be heard by anyone tuned into BBC Radio 4.
The Coastguard's broadcasts follow the same format as the shipping forecast using the same terminology and style, but the information only normally applies to the area sector or region covered by that particular Coastguard Co-ordination Centre (such as the Bristol Channel, for instance).
Announcements of pending broadcasts by HMCG is given on marine Channel 16 VHF and would normally be announced along the lines of "All stations. This is Portland Coastguard... Maritime Safety Information will now be Broadcast on Channel 23... Portland Coastguard". A similar broadcast on MF is initially announced on 2182 kHz, with a further frequency specified, e.g. 1770 kHz. It is worth noting here that VHF optimum range is approximately 30 nautical miles (NM), effectively line of sight, whereas MF range is much greater at approximately 150 NM, allowing ships in the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea to receive the broadcast.
As with the Shipping Forecast many people from a non-maritime background have been fascinated by this little known and very important service to the extent that they have bought handheld maritime radios purposely to listen to Coastguard Safety and Weather announcements. It is probably for the same reasons outlined later in this article about the main shipping forecast that it has such a committed fanbase.
The Shipping Forecast is intended to be read with clear diction and at a slow, measured pace to aid those who wish to write down the information.
Occasionally, mistakes occur. For example on Friday 17 August 2007, the 0520 forecast and data, as read by BBC Weatherman Philip Avery, was in fact that for the previous day, and a special reading of the correct day's issue was given out at 0700 on 198 kHz Longwave, before rejoining the normal FM programming. This has occurred on other occasions and, when noticed, a repeat forecast is generally transmitted in a diversion from the advertised schedule.
On 18 December 1993, as part of the Arena Radio Night, BBC Radio 4 and BBC 2 collaborated on a simultaneous broadcast so the shipping forecast - read that night by Laurie Macmillan - could be seen as well as heard. To date, it is the only time that it is has aired on television.
In addition a limited shipping forecast was included as part of former ITV companies for South West England, Westward Television and latterly Television South West closing down routines until the late 1980s.
The Shipping Forecast is immensely popular with the British public; it daily attracts listeners in the hundreds of thousands- far more than actually require it. In 1995 a plan to move the late-night broadcast by 12 minutes triggered angry newspaper editorials and debates in the British Parliament and was ultimately scrapped. Similar outcry greeted the Met Office's decision to rename "Finisterre" "FitzRoy", but in that case, the decision was carried through. Peter Jefferson, who read the Forecast for 40 years until 2009, says that he received letters from across the UK saying that the 0048 broadcast helped them get to sleep after a long day. The Controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer, attempted to explain its popularity:
"It scans poetically. It's got a rhythm of its own. It's eccentric, it's unique, it's English. It's slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can't really comprehend unless you're one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel."
Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader, described it thus:
"To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked-up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall."
The Shipping Forecast has inspired a number of songs and poems.
Snow storms forecast imminently in areas
Dogger, Viking, Moray, Forth, and Orkney
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 Head, one of the coastal stations.
Blur's early tour film, Starshaped, also features extracts from the Shipping Forecast during the opening and closing credits.
Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea
I've got a message I can't read
This song appears on the album Kid A, the vinyl release of which has the names of several of the forecast's sea areas etched into the runoff space.
But after we danced to the shipping forecast
the words escaped your mouth...
In the 2012 opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in London, the shipping forecast was played in the opening part of the production with Elgar's Nimrod to represent Britain's maritime heritage.
The Young Punx sampled the shipping forecast as read by BBC presenter Alan Smith for their track "Rockall". The shipping forecast forms the entire lyric for the track, both used in its original form (yet rhyming and scanning) e.g. "Tyne, Dogger, German Bight. Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight" and also with the words re-edited into new orders to form new meanings and puns such as "expected to, Rock All, by midnight tonight".
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; 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; and Thomas Dolby, who included a shipping forecast read by BBC's John Marsh on the track "Windpower". "The Good Ship Lifestyle", a track on the album Tubthumper by Chumbawamba, starts out with a listing of the sea areas — in the wrong order, however.
British DJ Rob Overseer's album Wreckage has a final track entitled "Heligoland", where the Shipping Forecast surrealistically alternates between reporting the weather and the emotional states of an individual. The band British Sea Power entitled a B-side of their "Please Stand Up" single "Gales Warnings in Viking North". Beck includes a 27-second sample five minutes into the track "The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton" on the album The Information. Experimental electronic musician Robin Storey, recording under the name Rapoon, sampled the shipping forecast for the track "Falling More Slowly" on the album Easterly 6 or 7. The Prodigy sampled a short section of the shipping forecast in their song "Weather Experience" on their album Experience. Manfred Mann's Earth Band extensively used samples of shipping forecasts as a part of the backing track to "Stranded", from their 1980 album, Chance.
The Jethro Tull album Stormwatch features the shipping forecast in between verses of "North Sea Oil". It is read by Francis Wilson, a TV weatherman who also reads the introduction to "Dun Ringill" on the same album.
Silly Wizard includes a snippet of a gale warning from the shipping forecast in the closing instrumental of "The Fishermen's Song", which tells of the loss of a fishing boat in a North Sea storm.
Shipping Forecast by the composer Cecilia McDowall was commissioned by Portsmouth Festival Choir and conducted by Andrew Cleary. It was first performed in June 2011. The work combines the poetry of Seán Street, Psalm 107, and the words of the shipping forecast itself.
There is a three-bell change ringing method named "Shipping Forecast Singles". It was composed by Sam Austin and was rung to a peal in 2004 at St John the Baptist, Middleton, Warwickshire. Other three-bell methods by the same composer are named after various shipping areas.
Justin Sullivan, lead vocalist and founding member of New Model Army, released a solo album in 2003 called Navigating by the Stars. Featuring a nautical theme, the album samples part of the Shipping Forecast on the track "Ocean Rising".
The Shipping Forecast has also inspired writing, painting and photographic collections, including collections such as Charlie Connelly's Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round The Shipping Forecast, Mark Power (of Magnum Photos fame) and David Chandler's The Shipping Forecast, Geoff Saunders' Reports from Coastal Stations, 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.
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.
Author Peter James in his novel Looking Good Dead has a character (nicknamed "The Weatherman"), a computer geek savant type, who memorises the Shipping Forecast four times a day. In encounters with other characters, when he cannot think of an appropriate response, he recites the current Shipping Forecast.
In the novel A Kestrel for a Knave and its film adaptation Kes, the lead character Billy Casper calls out German Bight after the teacher reads out the name of a pupil called Fisher during the class roll call. Author Barry Hines then has Billy say erroneously that Cromarty follows German Bight.
In Ross and Finistère
The outlook is sinisterre
Rockall and Lundy
Will clear up by Monday
Gavin Bryars's "A Man in a Room, Gambling" (1997), was written on a commission from BBC Radio 3. The ten short works were played on Radio 3 without any introductory announcements, and Bryars is quoted as saying that he hoped they would appear to the listener in a similar way to the shipping forecast, both mysterious and accepted without question. Bryars's music is heard beneath monologues in the same format of the forecasts.
Dead Ringers parodied the Shipping Forecast using Brian Perkins rapping the forecast (Dogger, Fisher, German Bight - becoming quite cyclonic. Occasional showers making you feel cat-atatatatatata-tonic...). Many other versions have been used including a "Dale Warning" to warn where Dale Winton could be found over the coming period, and a spoof in which sailors are warned of ghostly galleons and other nightmarish apparitions.
And now, before the news and weather, here is the Shipping Forecast issued by the Meteorological Office at 1400 hours Greenwich Mean Time.
Finisterre, Dogger, Rockall, Bailey: no.
Wednesday, variable, imminent, super.
South Utsire, North Utsire, Sheerness, Foulness, Eliot Ness:
If you will, often, eminent, 447, 22 yards, touchdown, stupidly.
Malin, Hebrides, Shetland, Jersey, Fair Isle, Turtle-Neck, Tank Top, Courtelle:
Blowy, quite misty, sea sickness. Not many fish around, come home, veering suggestively.
That was the Shipping Forecast for 1700 hours, Wednesday 18 August.
The BBC Radio 4 monologue sketch show One features a number of Shipping Forecast parodies, written by David Quantick and Daniel Maier, such as the following, originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Thursday 21 February 2008:
And now with the time approaching 5 pm,
It's time for the mid-life crisis forecast...
Forties; restless: three or four.
Marriage: stale; becoming suffocating.
Sportscar, jeans and t-shirt; westerly, five.
Waitress; blonde; 19 or 20.
Converse All-Stars; haircut; earring; children;
Tail between legs; atmosphere frosty;
Spare room: five or six.
In an episode of BBC Radio 4 series Live on Arrival, Steve Punt reads the Shopping Forecast, in which the regions are replaced with supermarket names, e.g. "Tesco, Fine Fare, Sainsbury". The sketch ends with the information, "joke mileage decreasing, end of show imminent".
On the broadcast at 0048 on Saturday 19 March 2011, the area forecasts were delivered by John Prescott to raise awareness of Red Nose Day 2011, a charity event organised by Comic Relief. The format then reverted to the BBC continuity announcer Alice Arnold for the reports on coastal areas. On delivering the area forecast for Humber, Prescott (who had represented the parliamentary constituency of Hull East for almost 40 years before retiring) slipped deliberately into his distinctive East Yorkshire accent - "'Umber - without the 'H', as we say it up there".
On Friday 30 June 2014, for the first time in more than 90 years, the BBC failed to broadcast the Shipping Forecast at 5:20 am. Staff at Broadcasting House had been reading it out but it wasn't being transmitted. Listeners heard BBC World Service.
In an episode of the BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, a soon-to-be-sailing Hyacinth Bucket calls over the telephone for an advance shipping forecast, even though the yacht she and husband Richard are to visit is moored on the Thames near Oxford.
Mentioned briefly in the film Kes (see Art and Literature section above).
A recording of part of the forecast is played over the opening and closing credits of Rick Stein's 2000 TV series Rick Stein's Seafood Lover's Guide.
In the BBC sitcom As Time Goes By, the character Mrs Bale is obsessed by and constantly mentions The Shipping Forecast much to the befuddlement of the other characters.
Many characters in the 1983 children's cartoon, The Adventures of Portland Bill are named after features mentioned in the Shipping Forecast.
In Funcom's massively multiplayer online role-playing game The Secret World the shipping forecast plays over the radio in a London Underground station, adding to the British flavour distinguishing the setting from other worldwide locations featured in the game.
The daily 0048 forecast is available online via BBC iPlayer.
In 2009, an unofficial Twitter feed was created.