If you’ve made your way through the first part of this dissection of the Shipping Forecast, the start and end of every day on BBC Radio 4, I’m very grateful. It’s somewhat tricky to convince people that cartographical evolution is worth reading. Thanks for stopping by. Today, though, the plan is to decipher the bulletins themselves. I’ll try and go through the items in the order they appear in the broadcasts.
So, when do you catch a Forecast on air? It’s broadcast four times a day, at oddly specific times: 0520, 1201, 1754, and 0048. This being R4, these times are adhered to, as well. The times relate to how long the broadcasts are. The 0048 broadcast, the main one, lasts slightly under 12 minutes, and is the most comprehensive. The late-night broadcast is preceded (except on Sundays) by Sailing By, a bizarrely-haunting light orchestral piece. It’s very distinctive, which makes it easy to home in on the broadcasts on long-wave. There’s a recording of some obscure church-bells on Sunday night (oh, all right; it’s technically Monday morning. Just leave me alone, okay?)
Long wave radio in Europe is allotted a frequency, that is almost, almost always a multiple of 9. For Radio 4, you will find it at 198kHz. The major broadcasting tower is in Droitwich, Worcestershire; there are two small booster masts in Scotland. All Forecasts are read on long wave, whereas only the night-time broadcasts are usually broadcast on FM. The 0048 broadcast is followed by God Save the Queen, which is gloriously retro. At this point in my imagination, everyone at R4 collectively conks out on the sofa, and the caffeine-fuelled BBC World Service takes over for the small hours.
The Forecast begins with its introduction, which follows the structure: “And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at (time) today/on (date)“. Recitation speed is crucial here. The announcer must fill the time allotted, as well as speak slowly enough for a listener to transcribe any and all parts that are relevant. This is the reason the Forecast seems incredibly calm and rhythmic – it’s by design.
From this point on, the Forecast itself has a strict word limit – 350 for most editions, 380 in the 0048 version, since this is the only forecast to include Trafalgar, in the far south of the chart. If there are any warnings of gales (there almost always are, somewhere), the areas to which they apply are listed. When the number of areas without gales is four or fewer, the format “in all areas except (wherever)” is used.
This is followed by the General Synopsis, which takes general to the extreme. All it really covers is the highest and lowest points in air pressure, measured in millibars. It’ll tell you where they are, and where they’re predicted to go. And that’s about it. “Low, Shannon, 989, decreasing slowly, expected Malin 976 by 0700 tomorrow“. There we go.
And now we get to the properly hypnotic part of it. The area forecasts. I’m actually, genuinely quite thrilled by the prospect. These are in a rigid order, and this is it. They go roughly clockwise around the chart. Viking-North Utsire-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. Phew. Areas with similar-enough forecasts are clumped together, as long as they remain in sequence. Lundy and Plymouth, say, share a border on the chart, and the conditions may be identical. But unless Biscay, Trafalgar, FitzRoy and Sole are also identical, they can’t be grouped together. Forecasts are valid for 24 hours after their release by the Met Office (not when R4 broadcasts them). This is their structure. Most of it is to do with the wind:
Wind direction. This (I was never sure until now) indicates where the winds are blowing from, not where they’re blowing to.
Wind strength. This is the Beaufort Scale, which goes from 0 (no wind at all) up to 12 (hurricane force: at least 74 mph). The Forecast usually just broadcasts the number, until you reach 8 and above, which are named. Gale 8, severe gale 9, storm 10, violent storm 11, hurricane force 12. This may sound a little excessive. Far from it. On 10th January, 1993, the Forecast read: Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey. Southwest hurricane force 12 or more. It’s the “or more” part that creeps me out.
Change in wind direction. Wind can either be veering (a change in a clockwise direction) or backing (anticlockwise). So “southeast veering southwest“. The change in strength, if any, is usually included.
Precipitation, (if any). There can be: rain, occasional rain, squally showers, fog patches, and so forth.
Visibility. There are several categories. Good (over 9.3km/5 nautical miles), moderate (between 3.7 and 9.3km), poor (between 1 and 3.7 km), very poor (less), and fog (also less).
Icing. This is a phenomenon which looks seriously grim. It’s a combination of strong winds blowing cold sea onto a vessel, causing extensive ice to form. If you get over-iced, “fucked” is a pretty good description of your ship’s ability to remain functional. This is quite rare, however; I don’t recall ever hearing it.
Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth: south or southwest 5 to 6, backing southeast 4 or 5 later. Rain, fog patches in Plymouth. Moderate, or good.
And, for the daytime broadcasts, that’s pretty much all you get. In the 0048 and 0520 broadcasts, by contrast, there’re two more sections. These are the coastal weather station reports, and the inshore water forecast.
The chart above is a map of the coastal weather stations around the UK. Well, not quite. These are the ones that are covered in both the 0520 forecast and the 0048. There are more, which I’ll list underneath. They begin at Tiree Automatic, and end with Malin Head or, in the 0048 broadcast, Machrihanish Automatic. All automatic stations are unmanned, whereas in the others, someone is out there taking measurements. Bless them. Numbered stations are included in both forecasts; an unnumbered one in the 0048 only. The numbers correspond to their position on the map.
Tiree Automatic (1), Stornoway (2), Lerwick (3), Wick Automatic, Aberdeen, Leuchars (4), Boulmer, Bridlington (5), Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic (6), Greenwich Light Vessel Automatic (7), St. Catherine’s Point Automatic (00:48 only), Jersey (8), Channel Light Vessel Automatic (9), Scilly Automatic (10) Milford Haven, Aberporth, Valley, Liverpool Crosby, Valentia (11), Ronaldsway (12), Malin Head (13), Machrihanish Automatic.
Ta-dah. The reason some of these may seem obscure is because they are often located on military bases (Valley, Aberporth, Leuchars), or once had a major hand in shipping (Milford Haven, Boulmer). This is how their reports are structured:
- Wind direction and strength (as above, though usually a little pared down – these are reports, not forecasts).
- Visibility, measured in miles.
- Air pressure, in millibars.
- What the air pressure is doing.
Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic. Southwest 3, 5 miles, 1023, rising slowly.
And that’s all you get from those. Pretty minimal, really.
And now, finally, we come to our final chart, and to the final portion of the Forecast. This is the inshore water forecasts. They are designed to provide information about the weather closer inland – 12 miles (not nautical miles) from the nearest landfill is considered inshore in this case. The areas for this are defined by being bounded by two points on land. They may be places – Berwick-upon-Tweed, why not? – or recognisable headlands, such as Land’s End. Because I am too lazy to write them out, please enjoy this chart:
Orkney is included in 1, the Isles of Scilly in 8, the Bristol Channel in 9, and the various firths around south-west Scotland in 14. Shetland is defined as being a circle centred on Lerwick, with a radius of 60 nautical miles. As you have probably been incensed by (I know I was), there is no standardisation for units of distance across the Forecast. Grr. As with the area forecasts, there is an introduction with a general synopsis, and the forecasts are valid for 24 hours. The structure, too, is very similar to the area forecasts, with one addition:
- Wind direction and strength are identical to the area forecasts.
- State of the sea. This can be fair, moderate, rough, very rough, or high. I can’t find any hard-and-fast definitions for this.
- Precipitation, if any – same as the area forecasts.
- Visibility – again, identical to the area forecasts.
Whitby to Gibraltar Point. Southwest 4 or 5, increasing 7 to severe gale 9, decreasing 5 or 6 later. Moderate or rough. Rain at times. Moderate or good, occasionally poor.
And, well, that’s about it! Thanks for trawling your way through this pretty long analysis of the Forecast. It’s a bit of a Gordian knot, it seems. Whereas everyone can parrot it, it seems that there are surprisingly few people who know exactly what it all means. Besides, I reckoned that the time was right for a metanalysis of this blog. And here we have it. Have fun.