The Shipping Forecast is a BBC Radio broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the coasts of the British Isles. It is produced by the Met Office and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The forecasts sent over the Navtex system use a similar format and the same sea areas. The waters around the British Isles are divided into 31 sea areas, also known as weather areas (see map below). There are four broadcasts per day at the following (UK local) times:
The unique and distinctive presentation style of these broadcasts has led to their attracting an audience much wider than that directly interested in maritime weather conditions.
In October 1859, the steam clipper Royal Charter was wrecked in a strong storm off Anglesey; 450 people lost their lives. Due to this loss, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy introduced a warning service for shipping in February 1861, using telegraph communications. This remained the United Kingdom's Met Office primary responsibility for some time afterwards. In 1911, the Met Office began issuing marine weather forecasts which included gale and storm warnings via radio transmission for areas around Great Britain. This service was discontinued during and following the First World War, between 1914 and June 1921, and again during the Second World War between 1939 and 1945.
Today, although most ships have onboard technology to provide the Forecast's information, they still use it to check their data.
On Friday 30 May 2014, for the first time in more than 90 years, BBC Radio 4 failed to broadcast the Shipping Forecast at 0520. Staff at Broadcasting House were reading out the report but it was not transmitted. Listeners instead heard BBC World Service.
24 August 2017 was the 150th anniversary of the shipping forecast.
The 31 sea areas covering the waters around the British Isles are as defined by the map shown here:
The areas were already roughly as listed above by 1949. In 1955, meteorologists from countries with North Sea coastlines met and recommended that the UK's sea area 'Heligoland' be renamed 'German Bight' to reflect more general usage amongst the nations concerned. They also recommended the divisions of 'Dogger' (with the north-eastern portion to be named 'Fisher') and 'Forties' (with the northern half becoming 'Viking'), and the renaming of 'Iceland' as 'South-east Iceland' for greater clarity. Following international consultation, these changes were introduced in 1956. In August 1984, the areas in the North Sea were again coordinated with those of neighbouring countries, introducing North Utsire and South Utsire, and reducing Viking in size. Finisterre was renamed FitzRoy in 2002, to avoid confusion with the smaller sea area of the same name used in the marine forecasts produced by the French and Spanish meteorological offices. Some names still differ; for example, the Dutch KNMI names the area equivalent to Forties after the Fladen bank, while Météo-France calls the English Channel sea areas Dover, Wight, Portland and Plymouth respectively Pas-de-Calais, Antifer, Casquets and Ouessant.
In the forecast, areas are named in a roughly clockwise direction, strictly following the order above. However, a forecast for Trafalgar is provided only in the 0048 forecast – other forecasts do, however, report when there are warnings of gales in Trafalgar.
The coastal weather stations named in the Shipping Forecast (and numbered on the map) are:
The Shipping Forecast includes a "general situation" update for the British Isles, followed by a forecast for inshore waters of the United Kingdom, divided by area. These areas are:
The forecast, excluding the header line, has a limit of 350 words—except for the 0048 broadcast, where it is increased to 380 to accommodate Trafalgar's inclusion—and has a very strict format. It begins with "And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at xxxx today." This format is followed quite strictly, although some continuity announcers read out the actual date of issue as opposed to the word "today". This is followed by gale warnings (winds of force 8 or more on the Beaufort scale), if any (e.g., "There are warnings of gales in Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, and Fair Isle"). This sometimes follows the opposite format (e.g., "There are warnings of gales in all areas except Biscay, Trafalgar and FitzRoy").
The General Synopsis follows, giving the position, pressure (in millibars) and track of pressure areas (e.g., "Low, Rockall, 987, deepening rapidly, expected Fair Isle 964 by 0700 tomorrow"). Each area's forecast is then read out. Several areas may be combined into a single forecast where the conditions are expected to be similar. Wind direction is given first, then strength (on the Beaufort scale), followed by precipitation, if any, and (usually) lastly visibility.
Change in wind direction is indicated by "veering" (clockwise change) or "backing" (anti-clockwise change). Winds at or above force 8 are also described by name for emphasis, i.e., Gale 8, Severe Gale 9, Storm 10, Violent Storm 11 and Hurricane force 12. The word "force" is only officially used when announcing force 12 winds. Visibility is given in the format "Good", meaning that the visibility is greater than 5 nautical miles (9.3 km; 5.8 mi); "Moderate", where visibility is between 2 and 5 nmi (3.7 and 9.3 km; 2.3 and 5.8 mi) nautical miles; "Poor", where visibility is between 1,000 metres and two nautical miles and "Fog", where visibility is less than 1,000 m (3,300 ft). When severe winter cold combines with strong winds and a cold sea, icing can occur, normally only in sea area Southeast Iceland; if expected, icing warnings (light, moderate or severe) are given as the last item of each sea area forecast.
Examples of area forecasts:
On 10 January 1993, during the Braer Storm, a record North Atlantic low pressure of 914 mb was recorded. The shipping forecast was:
With the information provided in the Shipping Forecast it is possible to compile a pressure chart for the coasts of northwestern Europe. Extended shipping forecasts (0520 and 0048) also include weather reports from a list of additional coastal stations and automatic weather logging stations, which are known by their names, such as "Channel Light Vessel Automatic"; these are the Coastal Weather Stations. This additional information does not fall within the 350/380 word restriction. (RTÉ Radio 1 broadcasts similar coastal reports for Ireland).
The extended forecast also includes an inshore waters forecast.
In addition, gale warnings are broadcast at other times between programmes and after news. The BBC instruction reads: 'Gale warnings shall be radiated (broadcast) during the next available programme junction and repeated at the end of the following news bulletin'. For example:
That was the news, and now attention all shipping, especially in sea areas German Bight and Humber: The Met Office issued the following gale warning to shipping at 2206 today. German Bight, west or northwest gale 8 to storm 10, imminent. Humber, west gale 8 or severe gale 9, expected soon. That is the end of the gale warning.
When giving a gale warning the Met Office will indicate when it expects the gale to occur. "Imminent" means that a gale is expected within 6 hours, "expected soon" that a gale is expected within 6 to 12 hours and "later" in more than 12 hours' time.
The Shipping Forecast is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 because its longwave signal can be received clearly at sea all around the British Isles regardless of time of day or radio conditions. For the same reason, the Shipping Forecast was broadcast in the BBC National Programme until September 1939, and then after the Second World War on the BBC Light Programme (later BBC Radio 2) until November 1978: these services were all broadcast on longwave. When BBC Radio 4 took over the longwave frequency from Radio 2 on 23 November 1978, the Shipping Forecast moved to Radio 4.
The last broadcast of the Shipping Forecast at 0048 each day is traditionally preceded by the playing of "Sailing By", a light orchestral piece by Ronald Binge. This is only very rarely omitted, generally when the schedule is running late. Though occasionally played in full, it is common for only a section of the piece to be broadcast; that section being the length required to fill the gap between the previous programme's ending and the start of the forecast at precisely 0048. "Sailing By" serves as an identification tool – it is distinctive and as such assists anyone attempting to tune in. The forecast is then followed by the national anthem "God Save the Queen" and the closedown of the station for the day, with the BBC World Service taking over the frequencies after the pips of the Greenwich Time Signal at 0100.
HM Coastguard's broadcasts can only be heard by vessels or persons using or tuned into marine VHF and MF radio frequencies, whereas the Shipping Forecast can be heard by anyone tuned into BBC Radio 4.
The Coastguard's broadcasts follow the same format as the shipping forecast using the same terminology and style, but the information only normally applies to the area sector or region covered by that particular Coastguard Co-ordination Centre (such as the Bristol Channel, for instance).
Announcements of pending broadcasts by HMCG is given on marine Channel 16 VHF and is normally announced along the lines of "All stations. This is Portland Coastguard... Maritime Safety Information will now be Broadcast on Channel 23... Portland Coastguard."
A similar broadcast on MF is initially announced on 2182 kHz, with a further frequency specified, e.g., 1770 kHz. VHF optimum range is approximately 30 nautical miles (NM), effectively line of sight, whereas MF range is much greater at approximately 150 NM, allowing ships in the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea to receive the broadcast.
On 18 December 1993, as part of the Arena Radio Night, BBC Radio 4 and BBC 2 collaborated on a one off simulcast so the shipping forecast – read that night by Laurie Macmillan – could be seen as well as heard. To date, it is the only time that it has been broadcast on television.
In addition, a limited shipping forecast was included as part of the closing down routines of the former ITV companies for South West England, Westward Television and latterly Television South West, until the late 1980s.
The Shipping Forecast is immensely popular with the British public; it daily attracts listeners in the hundreds of thousands – far more than actually require it. In 1995, a plan to move the late night broadcast by 12 minutes triggered angry newspaper editorials and debates in the UK Parliament and was ultimately scrapped. Similar outcry greeted the Met Office's decision to rename Finisterre to FitzRoy, but in that case, the decision was carried through. Peter Jefferson, who read the Forecast for 40 years until 2009, says that he received letters from listeners across the UK saying that the 0048 broadcast helped them get to sleep after a long day. The Controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer, attempted to explain its popularity:
It scans poetically. It's got a rhythm of its own. It's eccentric, it's unique, it's English. It's slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can't really comprehend unless you're one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.
Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader, described it thus:
To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked-up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.
The Shipping Forecast has inspired a number of songs and poems.
Snow storms forecast imminently in areas
Dogger, Viking, Moray, Forth, and Orkney
On the Tyne, Forth and Cromarty
There's a low in the high Forties
The song also contains references to Biscay, Dogger, Thames ("Hit traffic on the Dogger bank / Up the Thames to find a taxi rank") and Malin Head, one of the coastal stations.Blur's early tour film, Starshaped, also uses extracts from the Shipping Forecast during the opening and closing credits.
This song appears on the album Kid A, the vinyl release of which has the names of several of the forecast's sea areas etched into the runoff space.
Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea
I've got a message I can't read
But after we danced to the shipping forecast
the words escaped your mouth...
Concrete and steel and a flame in the night
Cromarty Dogger and Bight
In Ross and Finistère
The outlook is sinisterre
Rockall and Lundy
Will clear up by Monday
Dead Ringers parodied the Shipping Forecast using Brian Perkins rapping the forecast (Dogger, Fisher, German Bight – becoming quite cyclonic. Occasional showers making you feel cat-atatatatatata-tonic...). Many other versions have been used including a "Dale Warning" to warn where Dale Winton could be found over the coming period, and a spoof in which sailors are warned of ghostly galleons and other nightmarish apparitions.
And now, before the news and weather, here is the Shipping Forecast issued by the Meteorological Office at 1400 hours Greenwich Mean Time.
Finisterre, Dogger, Rockall, Bailey: no.
Wednesday, variable, imminent, super.
South Utsire, North Utsire, Sheerness, Foulness, Eliot Ness:
If you will, often, eminent, 447, 22 yards, touchdown, stupidly.
Malin, Hebrides, Shetland, Jersey, Fair Isle, Turtle-Neck, Tank Top, Courtelle:
Blowy, quite misty, sea sickness. Not many fish around, come home, veering suggestively.
That was the Shipping Forecast for 1700 hours, Wednesday 18 August.
The BBC Radio 4 monologue sketch show One features a number of Shipping Forecast parodies, written by David Quantick and Daniel Maier, such as the following, originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 21 February 2008:
And now with the time approaching 5 pm,
It's time for the mid-life crisis forecast...
Forties; restless: three or four.
Marriage: stale; becoming suffocating.
Sportscar, jeans and t-shirt; westerly, five.
Waitress; blonde; 19 or 20.
Converse All-Stars; haircut; earring; children;
Tail between legs; atmosphere frosty;
Spare room: five or six.
In an episode of BBC Radio 4 series Live on Arrival, Steve Punt reads the Shopping Forecast, in which the regions are replaced with supermarket names, e.g. "Tesco, Fine Fare, Sainsbury". The sketch ends with the information, "joke mileage decreasing, end of show imminent".
On the broadcast at 0048 on Saturday 19 March 2011, the area forecasts were delivered by John Prescott to raise awareness of Red Nose Day 2011, a charity event organised by Comic Relief. The format then reverted to the BBC continuity announcer Alice Arnold for the reports on coastal areas. On delivering the area forecast for Humber, Prescott (who had represented the parliamentary constituency of Hull East for almost 40 years before retiring) slipped deliberately into his distinctive East Yorkshire accent – "'Umber – without the 'H', as we say it up there".
In an episode of the BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, a soon-to-be-sailing Hyacinth Bucket calls over the telephone for an advance shipping forecast, even though the yacht she and her husband Richard are to visit is moored on the Thames near Oxford. Names mentioned (in scene sequence) are: Fisher, German Bight and Cromarty, Dogger and Heligoland (also known as German Bight).
In an episode of the BBC sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, Howard and Hilda leave their neighbour Paul's house party early, explaining that they must get back to listen to the Shipping Forecast. Paul asks why, seeing as they have never owned a boat. Howard explains, "Well, it takes us nicely into the news."
Mentioned briefly in the film Kes (see Art and Literature section above).
A recording of part of the forecast is played over the opening and closing credits of Rick Stein's 2000 TV series Rick Stein's Seafood Lover's Guide.
In an episode of the Channel 4 television series Black Books, the character Fran Katzenjammer listens to the shipping forecast because a friend from her college is reading it. She finds his voice arousing.
In the BBC sitcom As Time Goes By, the character Mrs Bale is obsessed by and constantly mentions The Shipping Forecast much to the befuddlement of the other characters.
Many characters in the 1983 children's cartoon, The Adventures of Portland Bill are named after features mentioned in the Shipping Forecast.
Actress Olivia Colman has said that listening to the Shipping Forecast through an earpiece helps her keep her emotions in check while filming some of the more emotional scenes on The Crown, to accurately portray the cool and collected character of the monarch Elizabeth II.
In Funcom's massively multiplayer online role-playing game The Secret World, the shipping forecast plays over the radio in a London Underground station, adding to the British flavour distinguishing the setting from other worldwide locations featured in the game.
For his project "The Shipping Forecast - an Artist's Journey, which began in 2015, Troon-based artist Ian Rawnsley plans to travel by sea through each of the sea areas and create a painting inspired by each, to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support.
The daily 0048 forecast is available online via BBC iPlayer.