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The Shipping Forecast: is this much-loved British institution reaching the end of the road?

The Shipping Forecast: is this much-loved British institution reaching the end of the road?

An icebreaker cuts through a sea of ice, Southern Ocean, Antarctica

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In May, the BBC announced that, as part of its latest round of cuts, Radio 4’s long-wave service will lose its dedicated programmes next year, and will in time be shut down altogether.

Radio 4 long wave broadcasts the Shipping Forecast four times per day (at 00:48, 05:20, 12:01, and 17:54). The forecast won’t die out altogether: the early morning and late-night broadcasts will remain on Radio 4’s FM, DAB and online services. But the loss of the long-wave signal, which can be received far from the British mainland, will mean that sailors and fishermen will no longer be able to tune into its crackly radio weather updates at sea. This long-lived and much-loved British institution may be reaching the end of the road.

How long has the Shipping Forecast existed?

It is the longest continuous weather forecast in history, which can trace its roots back to 1861, to the work of Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who founded what would become the Meteorological Office.

In 1921, the Shipping Forecast emerged in something like its current form: Britain’s first radio forecast was broadcast twice a day from Poldhu wireless station in Cornwall. From 1924, the “Weather Shipping” was broadcast from London. The following year, the fledgling BBC began to broadcast it, and aside from a break during both World Wars (when it was suspended for fear it could help the enemy), the BBC has continued to do so ever since. It is the world’s oldest radio programme.

What does the forecast actually mean, though?

The bulletin follows a strict format, beginning with gale warnings, followed by a general synopsis, and then the area-by-area forecasts. The waters around the British Isles are divided into 31 sea areas, starting at the top of the North Sea (“Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire”), moving round clockwise, travelling down to western Spain (“Trafalgar”) and back up, eventually ending with Southeast Iceland.

The forecast is limited to 350 or, at 00:48, 380 words, so it is very pared-down. That helps to give it its “slightly mysterious, poetic quality”, says Nic Compton, the author of a book on the subject.

For each area, the forecast gives the wind direction (which may be “veering” clockwise or “backing” anti-clockwise) and strength (using the Beaufort scale); then sea state (“moderate”, say, or “very rough”); weather (meaning rain); and finally visibility. So a typical forecast could be something like: “Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor.”

Where do the names come from?

They’re named after a variety of evocative geographical features: estuaries (Humber, Cromarty, Shannon); sandbanks and shallows (Dogger, Forties, Fisher, Sole); bodies of water (Biscay, German Bight); headlands (Trafalgar and Malin, the northern tip of Ireland); and islands and islets (Wight, Fastnet, Rockall).

Contentiously, in 2002 Finisterre (an area off northwest Spain deriving its name from the belief that it was finis terre, the end of the earth) was dropped at the request of the UN Meteorological Organisation, and renamed FitzRoy, after the forecast’s founding father.

Much of the Shipping Forecast’s charm comes from these names, which have captured the imagination of poets and artists. Seamus Heaney opened a sonnet with the line “Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea.” Blur referenced the forecast in a song, as did Radiohead and The Prodigy. In Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, when a teacher calls out the name “Fisher”, the hero Billy replies: “German Bight.”

Has the forecast changed over time?

When the Weather Shipping was first broadcast in 1924, it covered only 13 regions (seven of those survive today). In 1949, it was expanded to reflect increased shipping. Further alterations were made in 1956 and 1984, when North Utsire and South Utsire (around the Norwegian island of Utsira) were brought in to provide information for the expanding North Sea oil fleet. Since then, it has hardly changed.

A 1995 plan to move the late broadcast’s time by 12 minutes was scrapped after it was met with angry editorials and parliamentary speeches. Many listeners were outraged by the Finisterre/FitzRoy swap.

Why is it so important to people?

It is “part of the fabric of this intangible thing called Britishness”, says one of its announcers, Zeb Soanes. “Just like red telephone boxes, Wimbledon, the chimes of Big Ben, the smell of cut grass, scones and jam.” It represents continuity and routine. The forecast on Radio 4 long wave even interrupted the final moments of the classic 2011 Ashes series. When a glitch meant the forecast wasn’t transmitted at 05:20 on 30 May 2014, for the first time in decades, it caused great consternation.

For millions, the forecast is a soothing presence, and an evocative reminder that Britain is an island nation; many use it to lull them to sleep. It has been selected as a Desert Island Disc by, for instance, Judi Dench (Ronald Binge’s Sailing By, which accompanies the late-night forecast, is also a popular choice). It featured in Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

Does it still have a useful role?

There are amateur sailors, cliff walkers and the like who still use the Shipping Forecast. It remains a helpful tool: it is about 93% accurate. But the truth is that, today, it is largely a nostalgia piece, and has been for years. The 21st century’s seafarers, even on the smallest fishing boats, are able to access a vast array of precise meteorological data, thanks to satellite navigation and the internet.

“Fishermen want detail for exactly the spot they’re in – not just a summary of the nation,” says Mike Cohen of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations. Fishermen love it too, though, he points out. And the BBC insists that the forecast will remain “a much-loved part of the regular Radio 4 schedule”.

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