The Shipping Forecast to American Ears

Not that The Victory is going anywhere, but it is a ship, and it is cool.  "Victory Portsmouth um 1900" by Unknown - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
Not that The Victory is going anywhere, but it is a ship, and it is cool. “Victory Portsmouth um 1900” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

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?

19 thoughts on “The Shipping Forecast to American Ears

  1. My Father-in-Law loves the shipping forecast. I think he finds it meditative to listen to it. I rather like the obscurity of the language, it’s arcane nature, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to it.

    On a side note, I went to a photographic exhibition a good few years ago that was of seascapes and coastal landscapes, in monochrome, taken in each of the geographical locations of the shipping forecast. It was actually pretty interesting.

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  2. How funny, a while ago I was thinking of doing a blog post about the shipping forecast! I don’t need to now 🙂 If anyone from overseas is under the impression that everyone over here understands it then they’re very wrong! In fact I now know more about it from this post than I ever did before. A few years back Radio 4 took it off air because they felt that it wasn’t needed anymore in these days of satellite communications and all the rest of it, but there was an outcry! (from the all people who don’t have a clue what it all means, but you know, it’s tradition!), so they had to put it back on. I too like it for the comforting sound, and all those familiar and funny sounding names of the water areas, and all the weather terms like squally showers.

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      1. I’ve never heard of it being taught in schools! How funny. Maybe it was part of the curriculum at some point. I’m 45 and to the best of my memory it was never taught in any of my lessons (I was at school in London), I asked my other half who is 13 years older than me, and he said no for him too, and I asked my kids who are teens, and they had never even heard of the shipping forecast (we do live coastal now). So maybe if your chap is younger than me, it was during his time at school. Or perhaps just his geography teacher chose to bring it in? Who knows! I’m curious now about whether it was officially part of the curriculum at some point.

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        1. That is very interesting. The Boffin is 44, so this was definitely your time.

          I think the determining factor is that Southampton is a major port city. My sister-in-law wrote to tell me that she remembers being tucked in bed with the shipping report on and looking out the bedroom window to the cranes at the ready on the docks. She always wondered, if the sailors were listening too.

          With families depending on their livelihoods by what happens in the Channel, I can see why the shipping report was taught in schools. And maybe those children would grow up to do the same work.


          1. Oh yes, that makes perfect sense, maybe it was something particular to children living in large port areas. I can see this is a question I’m going to be asking random people for a long time, “Where did you grow up?” “Did they teach you about the shipping forecast at school?” I’ll report back if I learn anything interesting!

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  3. If you’re a fisherman, afloat on a fishing boat somewhere in the North Sea in January, you’ll certainly listen to the shipping forecast and understand it. it could make the difference between getting back to port safely or being caught in a life threatening storm. The forecast is broadcast on various wavelengths, including the old fashioned long wave AM (which carries a long distance, so can be picked up a long way from the shore). The format was designed to give the maximum amount of weather information verbally and without ambiguity in the shortest time, and it’s stood the test of time. Much harder to get the internet in the middle of the North Sea!

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  4. lovely sounds and video, and the spoken text does indeed sound like some obscure wartime code. Thanks for your thorough explanations, but in my opinion listening while trying to decode mentally would ruin the charm of it all 🙂


  5. Well, according to Mrs. Bale, visibility is poor, but the sea is moderate, in the south North Sea and Dover Strait. However, the wind is doing some very peculiar things in the Irish Sea.


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