Secrets of the Shipping Forecast

Peter Jefferson on reading the Radio 4 forecast for 40 years - and sending many people to sleep...

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Secrets of the Shipping Forecast
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"Sea area south-east Iceland...” I read those words several times a week for 40 years but they always meant something special to me. My uncle had planned to join the BBC but, as Commander Terence Grogan RN, he had more important things to do during the Second World War.

In 1941, he found himself on board HMS Hood when it was shelled by the German battleship Bismarck ten miles away. The ships were some way south of the sea area South-East Iceland when what became known as the Battle of Denmark Strait took place. Only three of the 1,418 crew survived. The rest perished, including my uncle. Two decades later, I achieved his ambition when I joined the BBC and, by 1969, I was reading the Shipping Forecast.

The general synopsis...

Broadcast four times daily on BBC Radio 4 long wave, the Shipping Forecast may seem an anachronism in this digital age, with our mobile phones that have become mini-computers, our sat navs that guide us in our cars along the highways and byways and “Breaking News” popping up on our home computer screens.

But the truth is it still has two audiences. It supplies vital maritime weather information to all those at sea round our shores and beyond. Even though most modern vessels, large and small, have on-board technology to gather most of the information themselves, they use the forecast to verify their own data.

The second audience is found among those restless souls on dry land who, listening to Radio 4 just before 1am, haven’t yet switched off either physically or metaphorically.

...low German Bight 1003

I know because I read the Shipping Forecast for 40 years until September 2009. People from all over the UK and beyond have written to me saying they felt I was reading it just to them. It had a soothing effect after a long day. Just when sleep beckons but the mind won’t quite let you slip into its silken craw, the sound of another human voice, familiar yet not intrusive, reciting this mantra can be quite relaxing.

Many is the time that someone has said to me without quite realising what they’re saying, “I know your voice. You’ve been sending me off to sleep for years.”

...expected Denmark 1002

The Shipping Forecast goes back to the 1920s and has continued – except during the Second World War when it might have helped the enemy. Many years ago, before computers as we know them now, the forecasts were delivered from the Met Office to the BBC studio by telex. These machines were ancient, unreliable, and very noisy when they sprang into life, not something you wanted in the sanctity of a radio studio.

Covers were designed and fitted, but there was still one drawback – catastrophic overheating. Shipping forecast starts to come in... machine wheezes to a halt... time is running out... heart rate rises dramatically... ring the Weather Centre for another copy asap! Colleague calls in to ask if everything is OK as you look a bit flustered. You ask him, as he is nearest the telex on the far wall of the studio, to see if the back-up copy is coming in yet. His answer: “Sorry, old chap. Rock-all!”

...by 0600 tomorrow

The names of the 31 sea areas have various origins: Viking, Forties, Dogger, Fisher, Sole and Bailey are all named after sandbanks. Then Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Humber, Thames and Shannon after estuaries. Dover after the town. Wight, Lundy, Fair Isle, Faeroes and South-East Iceland are all named after islands. And German Bight? A bight is a wide curve in a shoreline.

When Finisterre was replaced by FitzRoy in 2002, there was something of a national outcry. Letters flew to the BBC, Downing Street, the Met Office, The Times, you name it – but minds had been made up. The Spanish authorities also had a sea area named Finisterre and there were accusations of confusion being caused, though the two areas had co-existed for many years.

Low Fitzroy 1021...

Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the first head of the Met Office when it was established in 1854, and before that the captain of Darwin’s The Beagle, had begun the original forecasts, so his name came out of the hat as a worthy replacement for the late, lamented Finisterre. In many ways a case of natural selection.

...losing its identity

The name Finisterre has a Latin origin, meaning “the end of the earth”; in the days when people believed the earth was flat, many sailors thought that they’d sail off a precipice into oblivion when they reached this dreaded sea area.

Finisterre did indeed reach its own earthly end. Unlike the Shipping Forecast, which sails on serenely.

Peter Jefferson presents Archive on 4: Attention All Shipping tonight at 8pm on BBC Radio 4

His book, And Now the Shipping Forecast, is available for £10.99 inc p&p. Call 01326 569444 (national rate) quoting rt, or visit www.rtoffer.sparkledirect.com

This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 14 February 2012.