Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast is a four-times-daily BBC radio broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the coasts of the British Isles.

It is produced by the UK Meteorological Office (part of MOD) and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (part of Department for Transport).

The forecasts sent over the Navtex system use a similar format, and the same sea areas.

Because of its unique and distinctive sound, the broadcasts have an appeal beyond those solely interested in nautical weather. The waters around the British Isles are divided into sea areas, also known as weather areas (see map below) and many listeners find the well-known repetition of the names of the sea areas almost hypnotic, particularly during the bedtime (for Britain) broadcast at 0048 GMT. It is regarded with affection by many listeners, and in Great Britain often arises in General knowledge quizzes and is the butt of many affectionate jokes.

There are four broadcasts per day:

  • 0048 - transmitted on FM and LW. Includes weather reports from an extended list of coastal stations at 0052 and an inshore waters forecast at 0055 and concludes with a brief UK weather outlook for the coming day. The broadcast finishes at approximately 0058, and is followed by a short goodnight message and the National Anthem.
  • 0520 - transmitted on FM and LW. Includes weather reports from a coastal stations at 0525, and an inshore waters forecast at 0527.
  • 1201 - normally transmitted on longwave only.
  • 1754 - transmitted on longwave only on weekdays, as an opt-out from the PM programme, but at weekends transmitted on both FM and Longwave.

See also List of coastal weather stations of the United Kingdom.

Region names

Here are the sea areas covering the waters around the British Isles:

  • Plymouth
  • Biscay
  • Trafalgar
  • FitzRoy (formerly Finisterre)
  • Sole
  • Lundy
  • Fastnet
  • Irish Sea
  • Shannon
  • Rockall
  • Malin
  • Hebrides
  • Bailey
  • Fair Isle
  • Faeroes
  • Southeast Iceland
  • The areas were roughly in the shape described above by 1949. Modifications after that include the introduction of Fisher in 1955, when Dogger was split in two. Heligoland was renamed German Bight the year later.

    In around 1983 the Minches sea area was merged with Hebrides.

    In 1984, the areas in the North Sea were coordinated with those of other neighbouring countries, introducing North Utsire and South Utsire and reducing Viking in size. Finisterre was renamed FitzRoy (in honour of the founder of the Met Office) in 2002 to avoid confusion with the Spanish area of the same name. Some names still differ; for example, the Dutch KNMI names the equivalent area to Forties after the Fladen Grounds.

    In the forecast, areas are named in a roughly clockwise direction, strictly following the order above. However, a forecast for Trafalgar is found only in the 0048 forecast - other forecasts do, however, report when there are warnings of gales in Trafalgar.

    Broadcast format

    The forecast, excluding the header line, has a limit of 370 words, 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 xx:xx today.". This normally follows this strict format, although some continuity announcers may read out the actual date of issue as opposed to the word "today".
    • 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 of above force 8 are also described by name for emphasis, e.g. Gale 8, Severe Gale 9, Storm 10, Violent Storm 11 and Hurricane force 12. (See Beaufort scale). 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; Moderate where visibility is between 2 and 5 nautical miles; Poor where visibility is between 1000 metres and 2 nautical miles and Fog where visibility is less than 1000 metres.

    • 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:

    *Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor.
    *Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 3 or 4. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor.
    *Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.
    *Southeast Iceland. North 7 to severe gale 9. Heavy snow showers. Good, becoming poor in showers. Moderate icing.

    And most spectacularly, on 10 January 1993, when a record North Atlantic low pressure of 913 mb was recorded:

    *Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey. Southwest hurricane force 12 or more.

    With the information provided in the Shipping Forecast it is perfectly possible to compile (and then interpret) a pressure chart for the coasts of North Western 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 word restriction. (RTÉ Radio 1 broadcasts similar coastal reports for Ireland). Other maritime countries also use sea area maps but with local variations. For instance, the area that the British forecasts call Dover is referred to by the French as Pas-de-Calais.

    Gale warnings

    In addition, gale warnings are broadcast at other times between programmes and after news; 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, expected imminent. Humber, west gale 8 or severe gale 9, expected soon. That completes the gale warning.

    When giving a gale warning the Met Office will indicate a time interval for when they expect 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 reason for choosing BBC Radio 4 for the Shipping Forecast is not simply because it is a speech-based channel, but also because it broadcasts via longwave on 198 kHz as well as FM, and the longwave signal can be received clearly at sea all around the British Isles. For this reason, until 1978 the Shipping Forecast was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme and then BBC Radio 2, as they broadcast on longwave (200 kHz) and at those times the BBC Home Service and Radio 4 were on medium wave. The frequency changed to 198 kHz in 1989 when frequencies were standardised across Europe.

    Before closedown

    The last broadcast of the Shipping Forecast at 0048 each day is traditionally preceded by the playing of the musical piece Sailing By, a mellow string arrangement by Ronald Binge. This is only very rarely omitted, generally when the schedule is running late. Sailing By serves as a "buffer" to ensure mildly late running schedules do not impinge on the late forecast, as well as being a vital identification tool - it is distinctive and as such assists anyone attempting to tune in. The forecast is then followed by the National anthem and the closedown of the station for the day, with the BBC World Service taking over the frequencies after the BBC Pips at 0100.

    "Mini" shipping forecast, maritime safety

    The Shipping Forecast should not be confused with similar broadcasts given by HM Coastguard to vessels at sea tuned into Marine VHF Radio Frequencies.

    HM Coastguard's Broadcasts can only be heard by vessels or persons using or tuned into marine VHF 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 would normally be announced along the lines of "This is Portland Coastguard, Portland Coastguard.... Marine Shipping Safety Information will now be Broadcast on Channel 23.... Portland Coastguard".

    As with the Shipping Forecast many people from a non-maritime background have been fascinated by this little known and very important service to the extent that they have bought handheld maritime radios purposely to listen to Coastguard Safety and Weather announcements. It is probably for the same reasons outlined later in this article about the main shipping forecast that it has such a committed fanbase.

    Vocal characteristics

    The Shipping Forecast is intended to be read at dictation speed to aid those who wish to write down the information, although recent changes to the schedule have resulted in generic weather presenters reading the forecast in the early morning, which can mean dictation speed is not always adhered to.

    On Friday 17 August 2007, the 0520 forecast and data, as read by BBC Weatherman Philip Avery, was in fact that for the previous day, and a special reading of the correct day's issue was given out at 0700 on 198 kHz Longwave, before rejoining the normal FM programming.

    Influences on popular culture

    Due to its set rhythm, calm enunciation, and list of characteristic names from around Britain, the Shipping Forecast can sound quite poetic when broadcast. It is perhaps not surprising that it has featured in songs and poetry as a result.

    "This Is a Low" on Blur's album Parklife includes the lyrics:

    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.

    Radiohead uses lyrics relating to the Shipping Forecast in its song "In Limbo" to represent a theme of being lost:

    Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea
    I've got a message I can't read

    The Young Punx sampled the shipping forecast as read by BBC presenter Alan Smith for their track "Rockall". The shipping forecast forms the entire lyric for the track, both used in its original form (yet rhyming and scanning) e.g. "Tyne, Dogger, German Bight. Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight" and also with the words re-edited into new orders to form new meanings and puns such as "expected to, Rock All, by midnight tonight".

    Frank Muir and Denis Norden parodied the Shipping Forecast in a song written for an episode of Take It From Here:

    In Ross and Finistère
    The outlook is sinisterre
    Rockall and Lundy
    Will clear up by Monday

    Other popular artists who have used samples of the Shipping Forecast include Andy White who added the forecast to the track "The Whole Love Story" to create a very nostalgic, cosy and soporific sound, highly evocative of the British Isles; Tears for Fears, whose track "Pharaohs" (a play on the name of the sea area "Faeroes") is a setting of the forecast to a mixture of mellow music and sound effects; and Thomas Dolby, who included a shipping forecast read by BBC's John Marsh on the track "Windpower". "The Good Ship Lifestyle", a track on the album Tubthumper by Chumbawumba, starts out with a listing of the sea areas — in the wrong order, however.

    British DJ Rob Overseer's album Wreckage has a final track entitled "Heligoland," where the Shipping Forecast surrealistically alternates between reporting the weather and the emotional states of an individual. The band British Sea Power entitled a b-side of their Please Stand Up single "Gales Warnings in Viking North". Beck includes a 27-second sample five minutes into the track "The Horrible Fanfare, Landslide, Exoskeleton" on the album "The Information". Experimental electronic musician Robin Storey, recording under the name Rapoon, sampled the shipping forecast for the track "Falling More Slowly" on the album Easterly 6 or 7. The Prodigy sampled a short section of the shipping forecast in their song Weather Experience on their album Experience Manfred Mann's Earth Band extensively used samples of shipping forecasts as a part of the backing track to "Stranded", from their 1980 album, Chance.

    The Jethro Tull album Stormwatch features the shipping forecast in between verses of "North Sea Oil". It is read by Francis Wilson, a TV weatherman who also reads the introduction to "Dun Ringill" on the same album.

    Seamus Heaney wrote a sonnet "The Shipping Forecast", which opens:

    Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
    Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
    Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,
    Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.

    The Carol Ann Duffy poem "Prayer" finishes with the lines:

    Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer —
    Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

    A recitation of the Shipping Forecast by actor Peter Serafinowicz features prominently in the Black Books episode "The Big Lock-Out".

    The Shipping Forecast has also inspired writing, painting and photographic collections, notably Charlie Connelly's Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round The Shipping Forecast, Mark Power and David Chandler's The Shipping Forecast, and Peter Collyer's Rain Later, Good. Their critical and commercial success is a tribute both to the time and energy people are willing to invest in artistic projects inspired by the shipping forecast, and the warmth with which the public regard this regular radio announcement.

    In the BBC TV show As Time Goes By, the housekeeper of the house in Hampshire (Mrs Bale) occasionally mentions the Shipping Forecast.

    Geoff Lloyd's show on Virgin Radio includes a feature called The Shitting Forecast, in which listeners are invited to call in and say what they have eaten during the day, and their bowel movements are predicted in the style of the Shipping Forecast.

    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, eg "Tesco, Fine Fare, Sainsbury". The sketch ends with the information, "joke mileage decreasing, end of show imminent".

    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.

    Gavin Bryars's "A Man In A Room, Gambling" (1997), was written on a commission from BBC Radio 3. The ten shorts work was played on Radio 3 without any introductory announcements, and Bryars is quoted as saying that he hoped they would appear to the listener in a similar way to the shipping forecast, both mysterious and accepted without question. Bryars's music is heard beneath monologues in a the same format of the forecasts.

    Terence Davies' film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a largely autobiographical account of growing up in Liverpool during the 1940s and '50's, opens with a shipping forecast from this period.

    In the book A Kestrel for a Knave and its film Kes the shipping forecast is featured in the classroom register roll call when lead character Billy Casper calls out German Bight after the teacher reads out the name of a pupil called Fisher. (Author Barry Hines erroneously has Billy then say that Cromarty follows German Bight.)

    All the characters in the cartoon The Adventures of Portland Bill were named after shipping areas or coastal weather stations, with two exceptions - Eddy Stone, named after a lighthouse, and Ross, presumably so called as he was the best friend of the character Cromarty (a former Scottish county was called Ross & Cromarty). The same device is used for a group of minor characters in The Eyre Affair.

    There is three-bell change ringing method named "Shipping Forecast Singles". It was composed by Sam Austin and was rung to a peal in 2004 at St John the Baptist, Middleton, Warwickshire. Other three-bell methods by the same composer are named after various shipping areas.

    Stephen Fry, in his 1988 radio programme Saturday Night Fry, issued the following "Shipping Forecast" in the first episode of the programme:

    "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, Sheer Ness, Foulness, Elliot 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 the 18th of August."

    Author Peter James in his novel "Looking Good Dead" has a character (nicknamed "The Weatherman"), a computer geek savant type, who memorizes the Shipping Forecast four times a day. In encounters with other characters, when he can't think of an appropriate response, he recites the current Shipping Forecast. Sometimes very useful, it is observed.

    (Currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4) A comedy sketch, after the style of the Shipping Forecast.

    “And now with the time approaching 5pm,
    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;
    becoming embarrassed.
    Tail between legs; atmosphere frosty;
    Spare room: five or six.”

    “One”, written by David Quantick, BBC Radio 4 Thursday the 21st of February 2008.


    See also

    Further reading

    • The Shipping Forecast by Mark Power and David Chandler (ISBN 1-899823-03-4)
    • Rain Later, Good: Illustrating the Shipping Forecast by Peter Collyer (ISBN 0-901281-33-6).
    • Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast by Charlie Connelly (ISBN 0-316-72474-2)
    • Of Sea Graves & Sand Shrines by A C Bevan (ISBN 1-900072-46-7)

    External links

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