Meet the shipping forecast superfans as radio institution marks its 100th birthday

Meet the shipping forecast superfans as radio institution marks its 100th birthday

If I was to say ‘Viking, Cromarty, Dogger, Fisher, FitzRoy’ to you, there’s a decent chance you might not have any idea what I was talking about.

But there are a significant amount of people for whom those and 26 other words hold great significance – and no doubt they’ll tell me they’re in the wrong order.

They are the names of the 31 sea areas surrounding the UK which make up the shipping forecast, which four times a day, every day, updates sailors about the weather conditions.

For those who haven’t listened to the forecast before, you may be tempted to change tabs here… but bear with me.

For those in the know, the shipping forecast has its own mysticism and charm – so much so that the vast majority of its audience aren’t even sailors, and skippers still choose to tune in even though most modern boats are fitted with GPS technology which makes it redundant.

The forecast has inspired countless creative works. The song This is a Low, on Blur’s album Parklife, contains lyrics inspired by the forecast, as does the track In Limbo by Radiohead.

It was played during the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony alongside Elgar’s Nimrod to represent Britain’s maritime heritage.

Plus, it has featured in numerous television programmes and films, including I, Daniel Blake and Keeping Up Appearances.

But what is it about the straightforward broadcast which has captured the attention and imagination of generations? has spoken to three fans on the 100th anniversary of its first radio broadcast to find out why it’s so special to them.

All about the shipping forecast

The shipping forecast is currently broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It’s produced by the Met Office and provides weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the British Isles.

It dates back to 1867, when it was transmitted by telegraph, but the first radio forecast was broadcast on January 1, 1924 from the powerful Air Ministry station in London – making today its 100th birthday.

It was founded by Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy after the Royal Charter steam clipper got caught in a violent storm in October 1859 and sank, killing more than 450 people.

FitzRoy introduced the first British storm warning service shortly after, using the electric telegraph, to try and prevent similar disasters from happening again, and he was the main influence of the early development of the Met Office.

Currently the forecast is broadcast four times a day, at 12.48am, 5.20am, 12.01pm, and 5.54pm.

The waters around Britain are divided into 31 sea areas. The forecast starts by listing all the areas with gale warnings, followed by a synopsis of pressure areas, then a forecast for each sea area covering wind speed and direction, rain, and visibility.

The 31 sea areas, in order, are: Viking, North Utsier, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar, FitzRoy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, Southeast Iceland.

The forecast follows a very strict format, as excluding the header it has a limit of 350 words – except for the 12.48am forecast, which is increased to 380 to include Trafalgar as it doesn’t feature at other times of day.

Ahead of the 12.48am forecast, which marks the end of the broadcast day, the light orchestral piece Sailing By by Ronald Binge is played.

Rob Manuel doesn’t remember discovering the shipping forecast – his parents listened to BBC Radio 4, so it was often playing in the background.

As a child growing up in the 80s, his form of rebellion was staying up and listening to the radio past his bedtime, which meant the late night shipping forecast usually featured.

Rob, who runs the online anonymous confessions account FessHole, described listening to the forecast as being like a ritual – and he even created an entire 45 minute long album inspired by it.

He explained: ‘It was lockdown, now we’ve moved away from it and most of us are fine, but there was a point where society seemed to be tipping into post-apocalyptic end times, it felt like it was on the cards.

‘I was lying in the bath with nothing to do and I was imagining the whole day of the Radio 4 experience, from the morning service, to woman’s hour, all of that stuff would go in because it was just what was on the radio.

‘I was thinking “I wish I had made an album”, I have loads of ideas and most of them are completely unrealistic but this is one of those where I thought “hang on, that’s actually within my capabilities”.

‘The full version is 18 tracks and each one has a series of shipping forecast related gags, based on the list of names, then I got a friend who’s a voiceover artist to read it out.

‘It’s an imaginary day in the life of Radio 4 turned into an album – it’s reassuring to me because it’s the sounds of my childhood.

‘All of this stuff on the radio has to sit in time and place. Living on land, the shipping forecast doesn’t mean anything, but you had to wait and get through it to listen to the next piece of content.

‘There was so much more media we were forced to or listen to in the past because there were only three or four TV and radio stations.’

Roger O’Reilly grew up near the mouth of the River Boyne in Ireland, a stone’s throw from the sea.

He and his brother used to try to tune in to Radio Luxembourg using a transistor radio at night – but would often end up with the shipping forecast instead.

Roger, an author and artist, finished a project seven years in the making to illustrate every single lighthouse in the UK and Ireland – and this was heavily inspired by the shipping forecast and his love of the sea.

He explained: ‘What always fascinated me is that the shipping forecast has always had me along with thousands of other people who had no business listening to it.

‘I wasn’t a fisherman, I never went to sea, and yet I was completely taken in with it, it just fascinated me.

‘It got underneath my skin, and I think that’s a good way of describing it because I think for landlubbers that’s what it does. Bit by bit it gets in there.

‘The thing about the shipping forecast was that I associated it with this feeling, the same way as with lighthouses, of somebody out there looking after you.

‘You are here, in your house, with the fire on, raindrops running down the outside of the window, and yet you know there’s somebody out there on the waves, up and around northern Scotland or down in the Humber or wherever, and they were being looked after by this forecast.

‘It’s a sense of protection, that somebody’s out there looking out sailors and others who were out at sea.

‘I now live 50km inland, and this lighthouse project brought me back to the sea, it’s developed a hankering to get back to the sea.

‘You’re just imbued with the whole thing, you look out to the horizon and there’s ships waiting to go into harbour, on foggy nights you hear the foghorns, smell of salt in the air, it’s just one of those things that gets under your skin and it doesn’t go away, in a good way.’

Eloise Skinner, a psychotherapist and author, reckons she stumbled across the shipping forecast while listening to the radio late at night.

She says the broadcast always sounded strangely familiar to her, despite not understanding the specifics, and finds it a meditative and calm listening experience.

That feeling contrasts with her fondest memories of the shipping forecast – as she often used to listen to it after getting home from a night out at university.

Eloise said: ‘I think the first time must have been accidental – just switching on the radio when I got home after a night out!

‘But it became a bit of a tradition – having it on in the background always helped to bring the energy back down after a long night, and helped me calm down to get to sleep. A few of my friends started to adopt the tradition as well!

‘These days, I’m usually not coming in as late from a night out, but I’ll occasionally catch the early morning forecast.

‘It’s definitely nostalgic and comforting as well – a very familiar feeling.’

But while their interest in the shipping forecast might be for different reasons, Roger, Rob and Eloise all feel very similarly about why so many non-sailors tune in.

Eloise said: ‘I think it’s a combination of the timing (if you’re listening late at night, you’re probably tired or about to sleep), and the rhythmic nature of the announcements.

‘If you listen regularly, you get used to the format, and it’s nice to have something reliable, stable and relatively predictable to listen to.’

Roger added: ‘The voice, certainly when I was growing up, was a very clipped BBC accent, very resonant of a certain era, and I think for a lot of people that would have been quite comforting.’

And Rob said: ‘It’s like a ritual for people. It was part of the flow of late nights, it was like they were shutting down England for the night.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected].

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