Considering this maritime nation’s greatest nautical hero was a man who has been rebranded a ‘white supremacist’ by an attention-seeking, box-ticking, virtue-signalling f**kwit writing for the Grauniad (and sod removing statues – let’s just move on to burning books, eh?), the racist Royal Navy has nevertheless occasionally set sail with some remarkable characters whose influence has remained with us. Take the 1831-36 voyage of HMS Beagle, containing a young chap name of Charles Darwin (who redrew the map of the planet’s evolution), a hydrographer called Francis Beaufort (who devised the scale by which we still measure wind speed), and captained by one Robert FitzRoy, who effectively invented an institution which is celebrating its 150th anniversary – the Shipping Forecast.
FitzRoy essentially founded the Met Office in 1854 when the Board of Trade entrusted him with the collection of weather data at sea; this was long after his association with Darwin and a decade after his stint as Governor of New Zealand. His governorship had only lasted a couple of years; FitzRoy was recalled by London when he had defended native Maoris against the illegal purchase of land by settlers. Ah, yes – typical colonial. His concern for the regular disasters at sea due to ignorance of forthcoming weather conditions, particularly the 1859 sinking of the Royal Charter off Anglesey in a storm (500 lives lost), prompted FitzRoy to develop charts to second-guess the climate; he described himself as a weather forecaster, and invented the term in the process.
Utilising the latest technology, FitzRoy’s predictions were compiled via the telegraph; twenty-four land stations wired him daily reports which he then incorporated into his embryonic Shipping Forecast. The Times began printing them in 1861, and though the forecasts were discontinued following FitzRoy’s suicide in 1865, the fishermen of England regarded FitzRoy as someone who had saved countless lives, and their demands resulted in the resumption of the Shipping Forecast in 1867. Bar a couple of World Wars, it’s been with us ever since. As belated recognition of FitzRoy’s achievements, the famous sea area of Finisterre was renamed after him in 2002.
Early pre-World War One radio transmissions included marine weather forecasts featuring gale and storm warnings, though the Shipping Forecast’s association with the radio proper began on New Year’s Day 1924, barely a year after the first BBC broadcasts. The waters around Britain were divided into thirteen different regions and the bulletins appeared twice-daily; in 1949, the expanded roll-call of the 31 regions we’re familiar with today first appeared on the Light Programme, due to its long-wave signal (now occupied by Radio 4) being the clearest that can be received around the British Isles, regardless of the conditions at sea. The only changes to the line-up since then have been the aforementioned renaming of Finisterre, Heligoland changing to German Bight, and the introduction of North Utsire and South Utsire. Otherwise, it’s as you were.
Although the Shipping Forecast is now broadcast four times a day on Radio 4, it’s the final (or first, if one is being pedantic) broadcast at 0048 that most listeners are familiar with. This is the ‘director’s cut’ edition for dedicated night owls, complete with the coastal weather stations, the inshore waters and ‘Sailing By’, the opening theme tune and virtual sole survivor of old-school BBC Mood Music that can still be heard on the airwaves. ‘Sailing By’, with its languorous strings and soporific evocation of gentle, rolling waves, prepares the hundreds of thousands of landlubbers whose reason for tuning in couldn’t be further from the forecast’s purpose for the hypnotic recital to come.
Jarvis Cocker selected ‘Sailing By’ as one of his eight ‘Desert Island Discs’, describing it as ‘an aid to restful sleep’; but it is the strange names of some of the forecast’s locations that add to the otherworldly air of the mantra that follows the tune. Radio 4 announcer and regular Shipping Forecast reader Zeb Soanes once said of the bulletin, ‘To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. When 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.’
Musicians from Blur, Radiohead and Beck to Wire, Jethro Tull and The Prodigy have either sampled the Shipping Forecast or have name-checked the locations in lyrics; poets have woven these place names into their verse, comedians have parodied them, and they even made a cameo appearance in the sonic tapestry that accompanied the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. To the average listener, either on the coast or hundreds of miles from it, the broadcast paints pictures with words in a manner that serves as a reminder of the uniqueness of radio as a medium. And there are never more than 380 words either.
Despite the fact that seafarers are now more dependent on satellite technology for their weather data, most of them concur that the radio Shipping Forecast still performs a vital function; and in its own esoteric way, it also performs a vital function for those whose experience of the seven seas has been limited to the occasional cross-Channel ferry. Charlie Connelly’s superbly entertaining 2004 book, ‘Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast’, sees the author visit as many of the forecast locations as possible, though it’s telling that there are no photographs of them included. I suppose he sensed it might puncture the individual illustrations of the listener, something even his descriptions can’t manage. And we all know what they really look like in our heads, anyway – and they can never take those away from us.
© The Editor