Most nights I don’t sleep well, so to relax, I often listen to audiobooks or the radio. Other people’s words keep me from sliding into the canyon of doom, where all around shouts of “you’re screwed” reverberate. For many months I put on murder mysteries, but in an effort to embrace a more soothing sort of rest, I have started listening to compilations of the Shipping Forecast, a BBC Radio 4 production that is no fancier than its name suggests: It is, simply, a program featuring weather reports that narrate the gales and tides around the British Isles. If some people doze off to the sound of rain, I fall asleep to broadcasters announcing the rain that is to come.
The prototype for the Shipping Forecast was established after a particularly nasty storm in 1859 killed hundreds of people and wrecked more than 100 ships in the Irish Sea. In its aftermath, Vice Adm. Robert FitzRoy, founder of the U.K.’s Meteorological Department and originator of the term “forecast,” set up a maritime storm-warning system in 1861. Predictions were first sent by telegraph; radio broadcasts followed much later, in 1911, but were interrupted soon thereafter by the onset of World War I. Seven years after the armistice, the BBC sent out its first long-wave transmission of Weather Shipping from the Air Ministry in London. At some point the name changed to the Shipping Forecast and the number of broadcasts per day increased from two to four. Read at 5:02 a.m., 12:01 p.m., 5:54 p.m. and 12:48 a.m. G.M.T., each briefing begins with the same words: “And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office.”
Although each individual transmission has traditionally been short — limited to 380 words at most, and often not more than a minute or two of speech — when heard in hourlong compilations, the Shipping Forecast is poetic and hypnotic, a free-form ode to the seas. The forecast presents a kind of audio tour: The announcer begins in Viking, a sea area near the Orkney archipelago, before directing the listener’s attention around the British Isles, intoning rhythmic phrases like “Wight, Portland, Biscay,” “good, occasionally poor, becoming very poor at times in Plymouth” or “low Southeast Iceland, 1,000, losing its identity by the same time.” What linguistic splendor resides in these descriptions — what possibilities!
To those like me, who have never been involved in maritime culture, the language of the Shipping Forecast can be indecipherable. Without a weather writer’s style guide at hand, how are you to know that “backing winds” move counterclockwise, whereas “veering winds” go in the other direction? Or that “soon,” which means in a short time, is very different from “imminent,” which denotes urgency? While both words suggest immediacy, in fact weather considered to be “coming soon” is expected within six to 12 hours, whereas weather described as “imminent” should arrive within six.
These radioed predictions provoke nostalgia in their simplicity and analog beauty, which may be why millions have tuned in to listen over the years even though most of us do not spend our lives at sea. These days, fishermen and sailors have access to more precise data via satellites and the internet; they no longer need four daily forecasts to tell them which way to hoist their sails. And anyway, soon there will be only the early-morning and late-night reports; there are plans to sunset the two updates broadcast on long-wave radio. In 2022, the BBC announced its intention to end long-wave transmission sometime in the future, citing the cost of equipment replacement and technological obsolescence.
It would be a pity if the segment ever fell silent, though, because the Shipping Forecast is older than the BBC itself and has become somewhat of a national treasure in England. Radiohead made allusions to the Shipping Forecast on its album “Kid A.” Carol Ann Duffy, the former British poet laureate, concluded her poem “Prayer” by evoking its locales: “Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer — Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.” During her appearance on the BBC radio show “Desert Island Discs,” Dame Judi Dench, another national treasure, chose the forecast as one of eight recordings she would want to accompany her if she were a castaway, citing her love of Finisterre, Britain’s retired name for a sea area off the coast of Spain. “I love the whole idea of ‘land’s end,’” she said.
Dench and I are similar in that way. In San Francisco, where I am from, there is an actual park called Lands End, which overlooks the entrance to the Golden Gate strait. Growing up on a peninsula means that topographical borders have always been crucial to my sense of self. There is nothing quite like being on the brink. It is important to feel small, to probe the edge of things and know that you can go no further, a sensation that is harder to summon in London, where the city’s borders are often made of concrete and can feel ill defined.
Vastness, as such, is appealing, and the world is so very vast. Long-wave broadcasts travel far, hugging the planet as they make their way overseas. Like the sea itself, the Shipping Forecast is a reminder of the larger, more elemental forces at play, those things that are much more powerful than any of our individual worries or wants. For eons, there was nothing but the stars and estuaries, the winds, the shore. After making his way out of the mythical cave, man set off to the sea, where the water proffered new realms for exploration. And so, like the ancient mariners before me, I am often awake in the middle of the night, falling asleep to the mysteries of the deep.
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian. She lives in London.