Sunday, August 4, 2019

Lost Corners: The fascination with BBC Radio's Shipping Forecast

I have a minor fascination with BBC Radio's Shipping Forecast, which is fairly odd, I suspect, for someone who lives in the United States. And is rarely on a boat.

I think we can chalk it up to a combination of my interests in the weather, late-night radio1 and Anglophilia.

What is the Shipping Forecast? With a history that dates to the 1860s, it's, per Wikipedia, a "broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the coasts of the British Isles." There are four broadcasts per day, and they follow a rigid format as they provide concise forecasts for the 31 zones, which have colorful names such as Forties, Cromarty, Tyne, Dogger, German Bight, Humber, FitzRoy, Lundy, Hebrides and Wight (see full map below).

A article in 2016 dubbed the Shipping Report "quite possibly the most British thing ever" and Frank Jacobs further wrote:
"One of the Shipping Forecast’s attractions to others than fishermen and sailors is its poetic effect, the result of its very strict format and an arcane terminology, only intelligible to the initiated.

"Each bulletin begins with exactly the same opening line, and follows the same structure. Preceded by gale warnings if necessary, a General Synopsis gives the position, pressure in millibars and track of pressure areas. Then follows the forecast for each of the 31 areas, sometimes with some areas grouped together if they have the same outlook. Each of these lists wind direction and strength, precipitation if applicable, and visibility (‘good’ for more than 5 nautical miles, ‘poor’ for less than 2 nm, and ‘fog’ for less than 1,000 metres). The whole thing never exceeds 370 words."
And so a section of the forecast might go like this: "Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor."

But, unless you're a captain at sea, it's not the words themselves that matter. It's the mood that is evoked. To get a sense for it, you can listen to recordings of the Shipping Forecast on YouTube. Check out "5 Hours of The Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4!" or "The Shipping Forecast - BBC radio 4." And don't miss the iconic Shipping Forecast theme, "Sailing By."2

I have listened to some of these recordings on YouTube, and it was the comments there that compelled me to put this post together. Those memories of listening to the Shipping Forecast are the potential Lost Corners of the Internet. They represent first-person thoughts about a shared cultural experience, and it struck me how similar so many of the comments are. The Shipping Forecast, intended for mariners, means a great deal to generations of landlubbers, too.

Here are some of those YouTube comments, gathered for posterity:

  • I think the soothing feeling people get from this might be a remnant of our past. There is something soothing about people talking around you as you fall asleep. It's reassuring. The home is guarded. The fire is maintained. Predators are kept away. You are safe.
  • Imagine listening to this whilst on a boat in the North Sea or North Atlantic, a little bunk bed, tucked up, rain and spray battering the porthole windows. A small hurricane lamp above you swinging casting shadows about the cabin.
  • Curled up in bed with my ear to our old Hitachi radio turned low. R4 LW and listening to "The Hobbit" — book at bedtime and then the headlines followed by the shipping forecast. Rain and wind howling against the window but here I am nice and cosy. All those places incanted like a spell around the coast of our island with gales and storms but I am nice and warm and sleepy. Radio off and time to go to sleep thinking of the sea waves crashing around us and the poor souls having to endure the storm.
  • It is so reassuring to hear a calm monotone voice talk about shipping weather.
  • I fall asleep to this almost every night. There's something oddly soothing about hearing the weather forecast told by someone with a British accent.
  • I love The Shipping Forecast. I use it to help me sleep at night. I close my eyes and vision myself on the seas. I first heard of it through another BBC Radio 4 program, and decided to try it. My favorite is Mairead Devlin. She has such a calm, soothing voice, especially when she wishes me a safe and peaceful night.
  • I love the shipping forecast. I lie in bed and imagine all the people out on boats both big and small also listening to it. It's a beautiful feeling.
  • I'm an American and lived in the UK for 4 years. BBC Radio 4 at midnight was one of my guilty pleasures and it's one of the most British things I can remember from my stay. Big Ben tolls out the stroke of midnight before the world news. It segues off to Sailing By, then the shipping forecast, and the service ends with God Save the Queen. Makes me nostalgic even ten years on.
  • It's great to listen to on a cold dark winter night when you are all wrapped up warm in bed.
  • I honestly thought it was just me who snuggled up safe and warm in bed and listened to this and said a prayer for our heroic fishermen out on those dark unforgiving seas.

These are specifically regarding "Sailing By"
  • There's an entire subculture of insomniacs united by this music. I think of boats at sea & all the other people who are awake, working and not sleeping listening this. Makes me all warm, cosy and slightly melancholy. Lovely stuff.
  • This is beautiful. Being tucked up in bed and the rain at the window pane. So romantic. Thinking of the ships at sea off to far away places.
  • For a yachtsman, especially when at sea at night who is wrapped up snuggly in his bunk after a tiringly hard watch but still keeping awake to hear the all important shipping forecast, there is no other music that can come anywhere near to the wonderful feeling and aura of contentment, belonging, peace and tranquillity that this particular piece of superb music evokes. Brings back absolutely wonderful memories even for one who thinks he has seen it all.
  • The only piece of music that has the power to bring tears and one of the things that I miss not living in the UK. I used to love listening to the shipping forecast, either tucked up in bed at home or lying in my berth on a boat, wondering what the weather had in store for the next day. Proof that despite all of our wonderful technology, when it's blowing Storm 10 and above all you can do is plan for the worst, hope for the best and hang on.

1. See "Fascinating peek into early 1970s world of Long John Nebel" and "RIP Art Bell, of the Kingdom of Nye". There are other memories of late-night radio I should explore in future posts, too.
2. Also, you can learn more about the Shipping Forecast in Charlie Connelly's book Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast.

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