The Shipping Forecast

Rockall by Peter Collyer, from his book Rain Later, Good. Used by permission.
Original caption — too small to be read here and so not reproduced — reads:
Southerly 4 backing southeasterly then increasing 6 to gale 8 perhaps gale 9.
Showers then rain.
Good becoming moderate.

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…

Sea Areas.
(Map from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.)

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.)

A whimsical painting of a paintbrush-wielding puffin listening to the Shipping Forecast, from Rain Later, Good. Original caption reads “And that ends The Shipping Forecast.  The next will be at…” Used by permission of Peter Collyer.

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.

Cromarty by Peter Collyer from Rain Later, Good. Used by permission. The original caption reads:
Northerly backing westerly 3 or 4, increasing 6 later.


North Utsire

South Utsire







German Bight









FitzRoy (was Finisterre)




Irish Sea






Fair Isle


Southeast Iceland



Filed under Arts, Culture, Current events

19 responses to “The Shipping Forecast

  1. Hester Higton

    I’m really looking forward to reading all the Opening Ceremony posts, Mary Ellen.

    Worth saying that, in renaming Finisterre as FitzRoy, recognition was accorded to Captain Robert FitzRoy. Best known as the Captain of the Beagle during Darwin’s voyage, he also devoted much of that voyage and others to collecting meteorological data, and spent years stressing the importance of using previous weather patterns to predict forthcoming weather. After a stint as Governor of New Zealand, he became the first ‘Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade’ in what would eventually develop into the Met Office. You can read all about him in an excellent fictionalised biography, ‘This Thing of Darkness’, by Harry Thompson.

    • Thanks — I knew that it was named for Robert Fitzroy, first head of the Met Office, but had no idea about the Darwin connection! I actually cut a line about the origin of the name Fitzroy (can’t include everything), but would have left it in if I’d known more about the man.

  2. Malcolm

    And if, after all this, you’re still in doubt of Mary Ellen’s assertion that the Shipping Forecast is deeply engrained in our psyche, go to that Wikipedia link and see how it has penetrated our popular music, poetry, literature, drama, and comedy. And as for you, Mary Ellen, you were taking your life in your hands coupling the word Schmaltz with Sailing By. If you don’t yet get a lump in your throat and a misty blurring of the visual field when that music floats ethereally out of the speaker … thinking of all those who go down to the sea in ships … storm-tossed in Forties or becalmed in Fitzroy … your naturalization has a ways to go!

    • Candida

      Oh, but it IS awful too! Like the “Theme” medley that used to open the day on Radio 4, an OTT collection of Greensleeves, a hornpipe, and who can count what else all rolled into one breathless, jaunty bundle (actually, quite a lot like that opening ceremony…). They bracketed the day beautifully, and I wouldn’t change a note of Sailing By, but you wouldn’t love it if you’d heard it for the first time in another context, say as hold music.
      What I wonder is how the word Schmaltz got associated with sweet and sickly things though: I learned it in German, where it means lard, often with crispy bits in it, sold in pots to spread on bread. It isn’t even really bland, never mind sweet.

      • The literal meaning of ‘schmaltz’ in the US is purported to be chicken fat, used heavily in cooking by populations influenced by Jewish immigrants from Europe; millions of Americans use ‘schmaltz’ and ‘schmaltzy’ with no idea there’s any fatty connection at all!

      • I love the Radio 4 theme tune (since abandoned; I recorded it right before it disappeared)! A great piece of composition, exactly 5 minutes long. This is what Wikipedia says is in it:

        The Theme is a collection of traditional British tunes representing the four home countries of the United Kingdom as well as the national maritime tradition. The piece opens with the first few bars of “Early One Morning” (English, horns and trombones), before the main theme of “Rule Britannia” (British, woodwind and strings) is played.
        In the second section, the mood changes as “A Londonderry Air” (Northern Irish, cor anglais and harp) combined with “Annie Laurie” (Scottish, violin) are played at a slower tempo.
        The faster third section begins with “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?” (Royal Navy, piccolo) combined with “Greensleeves” (English, strings), then “Men of Harlech” (Welsh, brass and percussion) combined with “Scotland the Brave” (Scottish, woodwind).
        The finale of the piece, after alluding again to “Early One Morning”, ends with a full orchestral version of “Rule Britannia” over which a solo trumpet plays the “Trumpet Voluntary”.

    • Malcolm, I was just about laughed out of the pub not long after we got here by friends who couldn’t believe I said I liked “Sailing By”. I said I liked it (for* it’s awfulness, it was such a perfect example of…what it is, but they weren’t having it. (Actually what they said is that it was naff.)

      Americans will probably know what I mean from the “Happy Trails” reference. (Happy trail to you until we meet again. Happy trails to you, keep smiling until then… All with a steretypically cowboy beat — dum-tee-DUM-tee dum-tee-DUM-tee — in the background.) I should scare up some clips of these things and post them.

      Yes, I can get a lump in the throat about those who go down to the sea in ships (see post on Littlehampton Lifeboat station, which mentions the memorial stone we ran across in the Shetlands for a whole village-worth of fishermen who had all gone down in the same storm), but “Sailing By”–sorry, no.

      • Cheryl

        Just for you, Mary Ellen:

        (Van Halen’s version of Happy Trails…no lie!)

        Bum-ba-DEE-dah, Bum-ba-DEE-dah, Bum-ba-DEE-dah, …

      • Mefoley

        Oh, Cheryl! Thanks for that! That is the most stylish version possible;
        the scnmaltz has been spread very thinly there. I think we’re talking ‘knowing irony’ rather than sentimentality. And now I’m going to be hearing bum-ba-DEE-da in my head all day!

  3. I love the idea of the blog posts….. great to explain some of the obscurer references in the ceremony. (Which I thought, like you, was an utterely brilliant representation of what really lies at the heart of your average Brit’s fondness for their country. I LOVE Danny Boyle for not celebrating monuments and dead statesmen, but choosing instead the NHS, our diversity, our music, our literature and our kids. He couldn’t have selected a better range of things that are close to our hearts.) I had no idea the Shipping Forecast had been used by so many poets, and will be zipping over to the Carol Anne Duffy poem forthwith – you’re blog is an education!! Thank you! Can’t wait for the next…..

  4. love the images – especially the puffin!

  5. Simon Poë

    I too loved the Opening Ceremony. Nobody seems to be mentioning Evelyn Glennie and her thousand volunteer drummers. One of the best bits, for me.
    As for the ‘the isle is full of noises’ quotation, the isle is the stage of the Globe Theatre, Prospero’s island, and this island of Britain. Many Brits come over all peculiar at that speech. Cross refer with the wonderful Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum, part of the ‘Cultural Olympiad’. And, speaking as a Brit not immune to Americana, can I put in a word for Quicksilver Messenger Service’s version of Happy Trails? Definitive, surely?

    • Thanks for the comment!

      QMS’s “Happy Trails” definitive? Not, I’m afraid, to Americans. The version by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans ( *is* definitive! Takes an old-time cowboy to really sing a 1940s cowboy song written by an old-time cowgirl (Dale Evans Rogers herself).

      I’d like to know more about the emotional connection to the isle-is-full-of-noises speech; in the pub last night none of the Brits seemed to know of any special connotations of the passage, but it’s possible they don’t belong to the right generation to get it.

      As for the drumming–which was magnificent!–I think everybody can connect with that at a cellular level, without need for any other way of understanding it. I appreciated that one of the messages seemed to be that all these individuals were different yet united in making the sound, as opposed to the beautiful drummers at the Beijing games, where the message seemed to be that China can provide any huge number of people it likes and make them as well as their sound seem utterly uniform, with no individuality allowed, but perhaps that’s just my spin on it…

      • Simon Poë

        Well, yes, I daresay the Roy Rogers version is the original and the best known. And I expect that as the old hippies die off the Quicksilver Messenger Service recording will have a dwindling constituency, but until they’re all gone I’m sure that the Quicksilver’s epic Monument Valley psychedelia will continue to speak to one compartment of the American Soul. I hope so, anyway. Similarly, I’m sure that though you could go into any pub in this country and find a roomful of people who are unmoved by Shakespeare, that doesn’t really mean anything. I read Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (in which two children, very like myself and my sister and living not far from where we grew up in Sussex, unintentionally summon Puck by performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a fairy ring and are introduced to various figures from English history) at an impressionable age. Since then I suppose I have taken it for granted that Shakespeare’s words have an incantatory power. It works for me, anyway. And for Danny Boyle, too, it seems. I can’t imagine that there aren’t millions of others who feel exactly the same way. The drums, I took to be the sound of industrial Britain, the throb and clatter of the factories. Evelyn Glennie was Prospero, or someone like him, summoning the modern world into existence. The drummers were the people, become part of the machine. Industrialism, a great power but bought at a great price, like all magic.

    • I’m sorry if I offended you — sounds from your message as though I might have. I did not say my friends at the pub were unmoved by Shakespeare, nor that his words have no incantatory power; I understood your comment (“Many Brits come over all peculiar at that speech”) to mean that Brits feel that Caliban’s speech has a particular meaning for the British people, and I wanted to know more about that, since asking the people I know around here didn’t turn up an answer.

      It sounds like the very kind of connection that I’m trying to tease out here, the weight of meaning in a particular phrase or song that a foreigner or immigrant would have no idea was special to the British tribe. If that connection is out there, I’d very much like to know more.

      • Simon Poë

        Goodness, no! I’m not offended at all, truly, and I’m very sorry if I gave that impression. I guess all I can say for sure is that that speech has special resonance for me. I supposed that the fact that it was chosen for the opening ceremony suggested that I may not have been alone. Maybe, though, Danny Boyle and Kenneth Branagh (and me) may have overestimated how many other people feel that way. Certainly the keynote of the reaction, even in the British media, was that the ceremony was great but maybe a bit baffling. I didn’t feel baffled. I shouldn’t have generalised from myself, though, or attempted to speak for the British people.

  6. National treasure Jarvis Cocker,of Pulp, chose Sailing By as one of his Desert Island Discs for all the reasons you describe. It is just like being tucked up in bed. Thank you for a great post.

  7. Pingback: Moved to tears… I’ve been “awarded” « Simple Tangles

  8. mike

    If you are interested i have produced a poster – Celebrating 150 years of The Shipping Forecast – Regards, Mike (

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