An item broadcast at regular intervals on BBC Radio 4, giving information on the weather for major shipping routes around the British Isles. Something of a hangover from the golden age of radio, it is always read out by a presenter with a perfect Queen's English accent and is completely incomprehensible to most landlubbers (like me).

An example of a shipping forecast would be:

The area forecasts for the next 24 hours:

Viking: Southeasterly 4, soon becoming cyclonic 5 to 7, occasionally gale 8, then southwesterly, decreasing 4 later. Rain then showers. Moderate or good.

North Utsire, South Utsire: south or southeast veering southwest, 4 or 5 increasing 6 to gale 8 for a time. Occasional rain. Moderate becoming good.

Also known as the 'Long range shipping forecast' or the 'Offshore shipping forecast', it has been broadcast since 1922. It divides the sea around the UK into chunks, the most amusingly-named of which are 'dogger' and 'lundy'. Before 2001 the bit to the North-west of Spain was called 'Finisterre' ('End of the earth'); it is now called Fitzroy, as the Spanish equivalent of the forcast called another area 'Finisterre'. This change was reported in the mainstream news and is the kind of thing that makes non-seagoing folk worry, as the shipping forcast is a national institution in the UK. It's nice to listen to weather reports of gales in the channel whilst tucked up in bed, and it makes perfect ambient listening. Seamus Heaney, the famous poet, wrote a poem about it:

Dogger. Rockall. Malin, Irish Sea:
Green swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice.
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Off eel-road, seal road, keel road, whale road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L'Etoile, Le Guiliemot, La Belle Helene
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, 'A haven,'
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

You can read the current forecast here:
http://www.met-office.gov.uk/datafiles/offshore.html

Because lives can depend on it, and because it might have to be listened to in bad conditions, the shipping forecast has a very strict format. There is no comment by the reader, and no deviation from the usual way of saying things. This gives it a mantra-like quality, which I'm sure is part of its popular appeal, and makes it a rock to cling to in an uncertain world.

In fact, it is a great example of usability, as preached by Nielsen et al.

Understanding the Shipping Forecast

The shipping forecast, broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 4, is quite easy to understand, once you know its formula. The formulaic approach is necessary to enable it to be understood even in bad weather conditions, or when radio equipment or reception is poor. Everything, even down to the lengths of pauses for full-stops are seemingly unchanging. It is due to this that many people find it a good cure for insomnia. It is terribly reassuring in a very British way, almost a meditation for some.

Preamble

The preamble contains the time (in 24-hour format) and date issued.

Example:

THE SHIPPING FORECAST ISSUED BY THE MET OFFICE
AT 1130 ON THURSDAY 13 JUNE 2002

General Synopsis

Next, comes the General Synopsis, which details the main areas of low and high pressure, from which winds and other weather features can be determined.

Example:

THE GENERAL SYNOPSIS AT 0700
LOWS HEBRIDES AND JUST SOUTH OF ICELAND 1004 FILLING. NEW HIGH
FORMING FAEROES 1013 BY 0700 TOMORROW

This shows that there are low pressures in the Hebrides and south of Iceland. The low pressures are 1004 millibars, and rising. A high pressure will form in the Faeroes before 7am tomorrow at a pressure of 1013 millibars.

Area Forecasts

The area forcasts give current and expected conditions for the next 24 hours in a variety of sea areas in roughly clockwise order, starting at Viking.The areas are listed in the next section.

The area forcast gives, in order:

Example:

FORTIES 
VARIABLE, MAINLY WESTERLY IN SOUTH, 3 OR 4, BECOMING
SOUTHEASTERLY 4 LATER. SHOWERS THEN RAIN. GOOD BECOMING MODERATE 

Here we are examining the Forties area. The wind is variable, but coming from the west in the south of the area. The wind is a gentle or moderate breeze, but will move round to come from the south-east becoming more likely a moderate breeze later. The weather will be showery, but will become full-on rain later. The visibility is currently good, but will deteriorate as the rain sets in.

If conditions are similar in several areas, they may be grouped together in the forecast. This is possibly one of the biggest causes of confusion for the lay listener, as many seemingly meaningless words are reeled off:

VIKING NORTH UTSIRE SOUTH UTSIRE
NORTHWESTERLY 3 OR 4, INCREASING 5 FOR A TIME, BUT MAINLY 3 OR LESS
IN WEST VIKING. MAINLY FAIR. GOOD BECOMING MODERATE

Also, if a large area has varied conditions, it may be split into smaller regions:

NORTHEAST GERMAN BIGHT
WEST 4 OR 5, OCCASIONALLY 6. THUNDERY SHOWERS. MODERATE

SOUTHWEST GERMAN BIGHT
WEST 4 OR 5, BACKING SOUTH OR SOUTHEAST LATER. SHOWERS THEN RAIN.
GOOD BECOMING POOR

Sea Areas

The sea areas to which the forecast applies are (in roughly clockwise order, from the north-east):

The shipping areas do change occasionally, with Fitzroy, for example, being added in February 2002 to replace Finisterre.

Sailing By at 0045

The shipping forecast at 0048 is expected to be broadcast precisely on time by mariners on the night watch, and for this reason a gap in programming of around 3 minutes is always left after the previous programme.

Should the schedule be overrunning for any reason, this 3-minute gap can be shortened, sometimes running straight into the forecast. The gap is filled with a piece of light music - Sailing By - composed by Ronald Binge.

Comedic Interpretation

The notoriety of the shipping forecast opens it up for much ridicule and parody. Given the correct delivery, this example, by Martine Stead, would be indistiguishable from the real thing unless carefully listened-to:

FORTIES, SMIRKING, VETTING, FAIR ISLE CARDIGAN.
Southwest sneering 5 or 6, patronising east and west. Too
good, with smug patches. 

GO FORTH, FISHER, DOCTOR, HUMBUG.
South boring west 4 or 5, not retreating soon enough, dull
becoming unbearable. 

Another example was an episode (The Big Lock-out) of the comedy series, Black Books in which Fran went to bed with a bottle of wine and a radio. She had an intimate moment with herself while listening to the midnight forecast. The reason was that she had recently discovered that an old flame of hers was the new reader, and his voice had always done things for her.


Sources:
Growing up with a sea-faring father.
http://www.met-office.gov.uk/datafiles/offshore.html
http://www.met-office.gov.uk/leisure/shiparea.html
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/archers/listeners/parodies/shipping_forecast.shtml
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/help/faqs_4.shtml

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