Audio media is still a critical part of British culture, and being an island nation, the BBC provides a valuable service by broadcasting the weather report at sea. Produced by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Shipping Forecast has become a staple on the British communication since the telegraph days.
But that does not mean I understood a word of it when I heard it on Radio 4. Stephen Fry created an accurate representation of what most outsiders hear when encountering this mystical broadcast.
Was this part of the citizenship test? Was this code left over from the war, and the powers that be just kept it around for tradition’s sake? Was this an elaborate game of Mornington Crescent that the U.K. was in on just to baffle foreigners?
But I developed a certain affection for the Shipping Forecast even though I had no clue about it. It was very hypnotic and soothing. It started with its theme “Sailing By” by The Perry-Gardner Orchestra, and the mood is set. Then you had the reader say these cryptic words with a rhythm that was almost nautical and definitely soporific. Insomnia was never an issue after the Shipping Forecast.
I ended up looking it up in a book in the Newmarket library because I was too embarrassed to ask anyone. I shouldn’t have been. After all, how is an American supposed to know how to decode the Shipping Forecast?
I am going to try to give a general summary of how it works. When broken down, it isn’t that bad. As you can see by the Stephen Fry graphic above, the water regions are divided and named. There are also inshore waters that are named and coastal weather stations that are numbered, and they are mentioned in the broadcast too.
Then the readers give the wind direction (south, southeast, etc.) and whether it is veering (changing clockwise) or backing (changing counterclockwise). You will hear a number from zero to 12 in there. That’s from the Beaufort scale and that measures wind speed with zero being calm to 12 being hurricane force. The announcers usually give the weather forecast and then the visibility (good, moderate, poor, fog). Under winter conditions, they will also grade the icing (light, moderate, severe). Oh, one more thing, they also keep track of pressure areas in millibars, so you will hear things like “Low Humber, 960, deepening rapidly.”
Back in 1993, the BBC aired the Shipping Forecast on TV and radio, and somebody was kind enough to post it on YouTube. For some, this could be meditative. For others, this could be pencil-in-the-throat boredom. If you are awake after this video, you are one very strong soul.
It is probably easier to just go to the Met Office website to get a visual, but where is the challenge and fun in that?