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How a maritime weather report captured a nation’s heart.
LONDON, UK — There are warnings of gales in all areas except Biscay and Trafalgar. Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight: Southwest 5 to 7, occasionally gale 8 in Dogger. Rain or showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor. In some districts, it is rather dense.
If those lines are unrecognizable, you’re almost certainly not British.
They are transcribed from the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 (audio link): a four-times-daily update about weather and maritime conditions in ports and sea areas around the British Isles.
First broadcast in 1924 and suspended only for world wars, the shipping forecast is read every day on long-wave radio channels that can reach boats at sea.
Somewhere along the way in its 90-year history, the forecast’s soothing staccato incantation and charmingly quirky place names caught the ears of listeners with no seafaring inclinations.
It doesn’t matter that many of the forecast’s most devoted fans have no intention of setting foot on a boat. Nor that modern ships are equipped to receive live weather updates all day long.
The shipping forecast has become as a much a part of the UK’s cultural kitsch as the queen’s corgis: constant, reassuring and ineffably British.
It’s inspired a rap, a choral chant and a Radiohead song. Danny Boyle included a snippet in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. People have named their pets after the distinctive sea areas and inshore waters: Cromarty, Dogger, Faeroes.
Many commentators have compared the meter and singular language of the forecast to poetry. Bards of the British Isles from Seamus Heaney to Carol Ann Duffy have penned tomes in its honor.
“It’s a curious thing, isn’t it? I don’t know why we all like the shipping forecast so much,” says Julia Boyd, 64, a longtime listener. “It’s quite exotic, but it’s also very familiar.”
The 12:48 a.m. forecast seems to hold a particular spot in listeners’ hearts. Read just before a gentle sign-off from the host and the national anthem, it has become a bedtime ritual for many in Britain.
In the same way that any Instagram feed at any moment invariably contains a photo of someone’s lunch, so too is it a truth universally acknowledged that on any given evening, someone in the UK is tweeting about snuggling up with the shipping forecast.
Boyd lived many years abroad with her husband in Britain’s diplomatic service and often found herself jetlagged and listening to the radio at odd hours on trips home. It was during those late nights that she grew fond of the forecast and its “wonderfully evocative” place names. She now tunes into the 5:20 a.m. broadcast first thing in the morning at home in northwest Cumbria.
“If you’re anxious about anything, just listening to the rhythms and the places has a tremendously calming effect,” she says.
Constancy is part of the forecast’s appeal. Attempts to mess with that have proved extremely unpopular.
A 1995 decision to shift the late-night broadcast by 12 minutes led to debates in parliament, angry editorials and an accusation by a listeners’ group that the BBC had "totally lost sight of the concept of public service broadcasting," according to one report. The BBC backed down.
Andrew White, a writer and editor of the website Walks Around Britain, began listening to the forecast while working late nights after putting his children to bed at home in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.
In an island nation where the nearest coastline is never more than 75 miles away, he said, the romance of the sea holds undeniable sway. He created a walking route based on points named in the shipping forecast.
“British people especially have a great affection for the coast,” White said. “That’s really deep in our psyche. We like to explore. Obviously we’ve explored in our past, and we continue to explore on a small basis by going out on treks and walks.”
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The BBC has announced that it is slowly phasing out long-wave transmissions, a move that could spell the end of the shipping forecast. It has pledged, however, that the forecast will remain on the air until at least 2017, and it’s hard to imagine that fans will let it go quietly.
Until then, nothing interrupts the shipping forecast — not even live sports, to the consternation of many fans.
Listeners are still galled by the broadcast of cricket’s 2011 Ashes Test series — a highlight on the sporting calendar, also broadcast on Radio 4 — when three of England’s wickets (similar to outs in baseball) were interrupted by shipping forecasts.
This year’s Ashes appears similarly ill-fated. When the 12:01 p.m. broadcast on Thursday pre-empted a wicket, more than one cricket fan took to Twitter to voice the same thought: “Bloody shipping forecast!”