I’ve mentioned before how the British see themselves as seafarers; you don’t have to look far for web pages such as “The Importance of Ships to Our Island Nation” or for lines such as “As an island nation, [the sea] occupies a special place in our national psyche.”
Admittedly, Britain doesn’t have a good climate for grass skirts, nor exotic native plants for making flowery leis—though we can make a mean daisy chain over here—but the British are islanders nonetheless, and life for many people here depends on what the British call the sea and Americans would more usually call the ocean. However you refer to it, it can be treacherously changeable. To keep tabs on what the sea is doing, mariners turn to BBC Radio 4 for the Shipping Forecast on FM or long wave several times a day, but the one I’m familiar with is at 0048 (12 minutes to 1:00 in the morning). It’s the first one of the day, I suppose, but we landlubbers think of it as the last one. The Shipping Forecast is like a bedtime story; we go to sleep with it.
So when the Shipping Forecast faded into Elgar’s “Nimrod” at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I knew that the production that evening was going to be about ordinary, everyday Britain—the real Britain as I know it. The lines they used were:
…24 hours. North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth. Mainly easterly or northeasterly 4, occasionally 5. Fog patches. Moderate, occasionally very poor. Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover. North or northeast 4 or 5, occasionally 6. Fog patches. Moderate, occasionally very poor. Wight, Portland…
The numbers give the strength of the wind on the Beaufort scale, moderate and poor refer to visibility, and the names are the names of sea areas, which I’ll get to in a minute. The information comes from the Met Office, Britain’s official weather service (a modernized name; it used to be the Meteorological Office), but the Shipping Forecast is more than the sum of its data.
The words themselves, given in concise language for brevity and clarity, come across with the compactness and rhythm of poetry. Taken altogether, they have the comforting repetitive effect of a litany, even when the announcer is calmly warning craft of a force 10 gale. Elisabeth Mahoney wrote in The Guardian of the Shipping Forecast’s “talismanic, haunting power”; a recent AP article called it a “melodic and soothing chant”, “a reminder that even in the jet age, Britain is an island nation where much depends on the movement of the sea.”
So it’s a litany, a chant, and in at least one context, has been likened to prayer; Carol Ann Duffy, one of several poets who’ve used bits of the Shipping Forecast in their work, puts words from the Forecast at the intersection of poetry and religious incantation. Duffy, the current poet laureate and the first woman, the first Scot, and the first out gay person to have the title, ends her poem “Prayer” with:
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer —
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
(Read the full poem by clicking here .)
I first heard the shipping forecast long before I visited England—and must have had no idea back then what I was hearing—when Jethro Tull released the album Stormwatch. In between verses of “North Sea Oil”, you can hear:
Viking, Forties, Fisher. Northwest backing west, 4 or 5.
Dogger, German Bight. Northwest 5 or 6, occasionally gale 8.
There’s a good map of these sea areas on Wikipedia (click here). The recitation always begins with Viking and then works its way around, mainly clockwise, in an established order. I notice that Carol Ann Duffy disrupted that order for her poem even though the names themselves could be taken, as is, to be found poetry ; scholarly articles have actually been written on the Shipping Forecast as poetry.
If you choose a section of the list of sea areas carefully you can even find, without changing the word order, what I like to call found doggerel:
Dogger, Fisher, German Bight,
Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight
Poets may recite the areas out of order for effect, but other changes creep in that might make you think poets were taking even more liberties than they are, because the names of the sea areas sometimes change. North and South Utsire (pronounced uht-SIH-ruh) were carved out of Viking in 1984; and as recently as 2002, since I’ve lived in the UK, the more musical Finisterre was renamed Fitzroy. Both changes were made to coordinate the British names with those used by other European countries, though I’d put money on the British versions having been established earlier than others. (Yes, I should look it up, but I’m tired of entering links into this column, sorry.)
So those are the Shipping Forecast basics. There are other intricacies, such as that the shipping forecast, at certain times of day, includes notes about the conditions in inshore waters, meaning areas no more than 12 miles from shore. These include data from coastal [weather] stations, including buoys that function as lighthouses in waters too deep for building a stationary lighthouse. So you’ll hear references to, say, observations taken at Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic.
If you wonder about these places—where they are and what they look like—I can recommend the book Rain Later, Good by Peter Collyer. Mr Collyer is a watercolorist who has traveled to all the sea areas painting seascapes or landscapes-with-sea-coast of each. You can find his web site under “Featured Links” on the right-hand side of this blog.
Radio 4 signs off every night with the Shipping Forecast, preceded by an orchestra playing a piece in waltz time called “Sailing By” (though I’ve read that was written with hot-air balloon flight in mind), which is sort of horribly wonderful. It’s sentimental schmaltz—which is probably redundant, but I think my British readers may not be used to the word schmaltz so I had to add sentimental—but has a nostalgic pull that seems to function in this country something like “Happy Trails” does in the US. The music is convenient because you can fill up time with it or shorten it if you need to, should the preceding programme run short or long, and it’s distinctive—nobody would broadcast that stuff for any other reason—and alerts seafarers that they’ve found the right radio frequency.
After the music, we get the Shipping Forecast complete with inshore waters, a brief weather forecast for those on land, a quick goodnight from whatever presenter is still on duty in what I imagine to be a studio showing the only light in a darkened BBC building, and then the National Anthem. It feels like being tucked into bed; all’s right with the world.
I’ll sign off now with a complete list of the sea areas. God Save the Queen. Sleep well.
FitzRoy (was Finisterre)