The Shipping Forecast

RM: And now 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

PJ: And now the shipping forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at double 015 on Monday the 21st of September.

RM: Four times every day, on radios all across the British Isles, a BBC announcer begins reading from a seemingly indecipherable script.

PJ: Viking North Utsire Southwesterly 5 to 7. Occasionally Gale 8. Rain or showers moderate or good, occasionally poor.

RM: This cryptic, mesmerizing mumbo-jumbo is the Shipping Forecast, the UK’s nautical weather report.

PJ: Tyne, Dogger, Fisher. Southwest 4 or five increasing 5 or 6 occasionally 7 later occasional rain moderate or good.

RM: And that voice you hear reading it is Peter Jefferson

PJ: Yes, hello, I’m Peter Jefferson. I used to work for the BBC for about a lifetime and a half, and one of the things I did there was to read the Shipping Forecast.

RM: Peter started working for the BBC back in the 60s. He was an announcer, which meant he read the news. But one day they handed him a very different sort of script; It was the Shipping Forecast.

PJ: Although I’d heard it since I was a small boy, I never thought that one day I’d be reading it. And when I was faced with it and nobody told me how I should go about reading it, I was somewhat nervous.

RM: So he just read the script, word for word.

PJ: Originally I was reading what’s there and wondering to myself, “What the hell is all this about?”

RM: But he got through it, and from that day forward Peter Jefferson’s job, which he would keep for forty years until he made a fateful mistake, was to read one of the oldest, strangest, most beloved weather forecasts in the world.

CC: It’s been going for 104 years now, and it’s become a really part of the culture here and it’s it’s a much loved institution. People regard it as poetry.

RM: This is Charlie Connelly.

CC: My name’s Charlie Connolly. I’m a writer and occasional radio presenter and I’ve written a number of travel books including Attention All Shipping: A Journey ‘Round the Shipping Forecast

RM: Charlie is pretty into the Shipping Forecast.

CC: I’ve no direct connection to the sea, yet I’ve got this lifelong love for the shipping forecast and I’m kind of embarrassed to be saying this, but I have my alarm set every morning to go off at twenty past five in time for that early morning shipping forecast.

RM: OK, Charlie is really into the Shipping Forecast.

CC: I am quite obsessed [laughs]

RM: The story of how Charlie’s favorite radio program came to be, begins in the 1850s with a man named FitzRoy.

CC: It goes back to Admiral Robert Fitzroy who was the captain of The Beagle, Charles Darwin’s ship.

RM: After a long, tumultuous, sometimes controversial, career that took him all over the world, Bob FitzRoy decided he wanted to find a solution to one of the most serious problems facing sailors in the 19th century, the weather.

CC: By the mid nineteenth century the amount of shipping was absolutely phenomenal. There were ships crossing the oceans all the time, and huge storms would blow up. Ships would be lost, lives would be lost, cargo would be lost.

RM: Around this time people were just beginning to understand the connection between air pressure and storms.

CC: Fitzroy got really interested in this because of the potential applications for maritime work.

RM: FitzRoy was appointed head of the new Meteorological Office, and he poured all his energy into the study of air pressure. He had a barometer, and he would use it to try and figure out what the weather was about to do. And then one day in 1859, a ship called the Royal Charter was sailing from Australia to Liverpool. Many of the passengers on board were miners, returning from the Australian gold fields. They were almost home when suddenly…

CC: A big storm blew up in the Irish Sea and chased the ship up the coast.

RM: Robert FitzRoy was sitting at his house in London at the time,

CC: And he saw his barometer on the wall at home he saw it suddenly drop dramatically. So he knew there was a big storm somewhere in the vicinity of Britain and Ireland.

RM: The captain of the Royal Charter tried to ride out that storm, but eventually the winds blew the ship onto the rocks. The Royal Charter sunk and over 450 people drowned.

CC: And poor old Fitzroy took this really badly because he kind of felt responsible almost for this terrible disaster that he couldn’t warn anyone.

RM: Fitzroy decided to devote the rest of his life to saving lives at sea by predicting the weather.

CC: Which in Victorian times was pretty controversial because the very religious people, and anything that kind of sounded a bit like “prophecy” working out kind of, here be dragons and witchcraft as far as the Victorians were concerned.

RM: So he decided to use a synonym for prophecy that didn’t sound quite so witchy.

CC: He invented the term “weather forecast” to distinguish it from prophecy and superstition and all that kind of thing.

RM: FitzRoy, inventor of the weather forecast, delivered his prognostications by telegraph to the various ports around the UK. Signal flags were hoisted in the harbor to warn ships heading out to sea. Eventually his forecasts were published in the newspaper, and while they were often ridiculed by readers at the time, they were pretty accurate! And they became indispensable for sailors and fishermen.

CC: I mean, it’s impossible to calculate the number of lives that were saved as a result of Fitzroy and his work.

RM: And decades after his death, FitzRoy’s Shipping Forecast would expand its reach and become a British spoken word love poem to the sea. All thanks to a new technology…radio.

RM: The BBC was founded in 1922 and two years later, the first shipping forecast went out on the airwaves.

There have been many Shipping Forecast readers over the years.

In 1969, Peter Jefferson joined the club. When he first started, he didn’t understand the words he was reading. He was not a sailor. In fact, he couldn’t even swim. He didn’t know difference between a gale and a cyclone. He didn’t know exactly where Dogger was.

PJ: So somebody took me to one side and said, “Well it doesn’t sound as though you’re quite across this so, this is what it means.”

RM: Peter learned that numbers are wind speeds, the directions are wind directions, and the random adjectives like “good!” or “poor!” are descriptions of the visibility. And all those whimsical names are real places; regions of the ocean around Great Britain named by the Met Office. Some are named after islands, or towns along the coast…

PJ: Some are named after rivers, some are named after sandbanks. There’s one called Rockall which literally is a rock sticking out of the sea inhabited by seagulls nothing else I think.

RM: Sailors know how to decode the Shipping Forecast, and over the years it has provided them with really important information. But most people in Great Britain are landlubbers. They do not need to know the weather conditions around some seagull rock hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline. Still, there’s just something about the forecast that appeals to them.

PJ: Many people find the the words and the, I suppose the tone, and the pace quite mesmerising in a way. People have described it as everything from just very soothing to a sort of, a prayer

RM: And maybe you can see where this is heading. Maybe as you listen to Peter, your eyelids are getting heavy and your thoughts are getting dreamy. If this is the case, you are not alone. Peter discovered pretty early on that people all across Great Britain were tuning into the late night Shipping Forecast, just before one o’clock in the morning, for something entirely different from its intended purpose

PJ: Somebody once said to me, “We love listening to you sending me asleep late at night.”

RM: Peter was lulling them into sweet sweet oblivion.

PJ: I took the sort of backhanded compliment really in a way.

RM: For the record, I hear this a lot too. You have told me that my voice puts you to sleep, It’s doesn’t bother me; I’m sure you wake up in the morning and listen to every episode from the beginning and really appreciate the craftmanship and quality journalism.

PJ: You know, if one sort of cuts oneself off from the actual meaning, if it doesn’t actually at that time have a meaning to you, then it’s just a one to one I suppose of a pleasant voice speaking to you in a soothing way.

RM: On Youtube someone strung dozens of Shipping Forecasts together into a five hour video and in the comments there are all these people going on and on about how much the shipping forecast has helped cure their insomnia.

“I fall asleep to this almost every night. there’s something oddly soothing about it.”

“Yep, bores the pants off me to sleep as well *yawn*!

RM: There’s dozens of these comments

“Love this! So boring! Bedtime story zzzzzzzzz.”

RM: And honestly, providing a soothing bedtime story might be forecast’s primary function at this point. Plenty of people still listen out at sea, but these days many sailors have weather radar on board and smartphones with internet access.

PJ: I’m surprised actually that it’s still there because there are so many other ways of getting that information rather than listening to the radio.

RM: And yet decade after decade, the BBC continues to broadcast the forecast every single day at the exact same times.

PJ: Some years ago now they changed the time the Shipping Forecast went out, and there were literally thousands of people marching on Broadcasting House in London.

RM: This miggggghhht be a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is the British love the Shipping Forecast. and you shouldn’t try and take it away from them!

PJ: Goodness knows what might happen, it’d be a civil war I should think.

RM: Over his decades long career, Peter Jefferson became one of the most recognizable readers of the Shipping Forecast, and his voice was a metronome for sailors and insomniacs alike. Peter had all kinds of other responsibilities at the BBC, but he could never really escape his association with the forecast. Not even at his own wedding.

PJ: My then future wife and myself were were outside the church and we had these great guffaws of laughter going on inside before we went in and we thought what on earth is going on!?

RM: The Vicar was in there delivering what he called their “wedding forecast,” in which he described their partnership as “moderate, becoming good.”

PJ: Which caused a great deal of laughter. And when we heard it we thought it was fantastic.

RM: And then one day, after learning some bad news, Peter made a mistake

PJ: Earlier that day, I had been told I’d got prostate cancer and quite honestly I don’t think I should have gone into work that day, because my mind was not on what I was actually doing it was on other things as you can probably imagine.

RM: He stumbled over his words during a transition.

PJ: And I thought I had closed the mic but I hadn’t and I said. Oh FUCK! And unfortunately, it went out… and I followed it shortly afterwards.

RM: Peter was fired.

PJ: I got a phone call at home from my boss saying that it would honor my shifts over the next few weeks. But after that Thank you and Goodbye.

RM: The BBC has consistently maintained that they didn’t fire Peter because of his slip up. He had been around for a long time, and they wanted to get some fresh faces in the building.

PJ: Funnily enough, I mean, I was thinking of stopping it a few months later anyway.

RM: The forecast must go on though, and it does.

CC: The shipping forecast going out four times a day, I think it is terrifically important in terms of warning people of bad weather, and just reminding people that we’re a maritime people; we’re a maritime nation.

RM: This is Charlie Connelly again. He talks about the Shipping Forecast like it’s a piece of literature, an ode to Great Britain’s relationship with the sea.

CC: We’ve got National epics like The Canterbury Tales, and Beowulf and I would argue for the Shipping Forecast to be the modern equivalent of a British national epic.

RM: A National Epic, with new chapters written every day, four times a day, by a bunch of meteorologists in an office block somewhere.

CC: By these guys sitting at desks with waste paper bins next to them, with browning apple cores in them, and their wives texting them saying, “When will you be home?”, and they’re producing this amazing stuff. They are heroes every one of them!

RM: As for our hero, Peter Jefferson, getting fired did not sever his connection with the Shipping Forecast. If anything, it made it stronger. It gave him time to write an entire book about it. And he’s got a new project.

PJ: Well it was just last year I got an email out of the blue….

RM: The email was from the popular meditation app, Calm. Calm produces what they call “sleep stories” meant to be listened to right before bed. And they wanted Peter to read the Shipping Forecast for them.

PJ: And they just thought it would make a rather soothing bedtime story.

RM: Peter obliged. He read the forecast from his last day at the BBC. It was a pretty quiet day weather wise. No major storms.

PJ: They asked me to read it much more slowly than I would normally did on air but apparently it worked and it’s been very successful.

RM: So successful that they’ve hired him to read another of their bedtime stories, and this one has nothing to do with the Shipping Forecast.

PJ: What they want me to do is read this very, very long and very turgid legalese document which they think will put people to sleep and I think they’re absolutely right.

RM: Here’s a little taste of Peter reading from the EU’s recent General Data Protection Regulation.

PJ: The European Parliament and the council of the European Union, having regards to the functioning of the European Union, and in particular article sixteen thereof.

RM: It’s pretty scintillating stuff.

PJ: Having regard to the proposal from the European Commission, after transmission of the draft legislation to the parliament, having regards to the opinion of…

RM: He may not be saving lives at sea, but Peter believes helping people get to sleep is a very honorable profession.

PJ: As somebody who has huge problems falling asleep myself, I hope that it does work. Because I know what a horrible thing it is if you can’t get to sleep.

(Peter reads)

PJ: Was that enough for you?

RM: That’s great. I was going to stop you but then I got mesmerised and I wanted you to finish.

PJ: [laughs]

RM: Peter Jefferson’s book is called And Now the Shipping Forecast, and Charlie Connelly’s book is called Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast. You can find links to both on our website, 99pi.org.

PJ: Are you still awake? (Laughs)

Comments (27)

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  1. Alan Lovell

    On watch aboard a Royal Naval ship in the North Sea in the 1980s, listening to the early morning shipping forecast was both essential and a sort of meditation to start the day. Dame Judy Dench chose the shipping forecast as one of her eight Desert Island Discs. It is, as you say, a national institution.

  2. Sofia Cohen

    I am a big fan. And I listen to it every morning. And every night. I love the names of the places and comparing them with the Swedish shipping forecast. ❤️

  3. Martin B

    Thanks for another wonderful episode, the shipping forecast is one of the real gems of BBC Radio 4, this version really should get a bit more attention

    BBC Radio 4’s Brian Perkins reads Les Barker’s version of ‘The Shipping Forecast’ from Guide Cats for the Blind; a series of four CD’s released to help raise funds for ‘The British Computer Association of the Blind.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9QumF93PpY

  4. Asmi N

    Loved loved loved this episode! I came back today to listening 99pi after a while, and was glad this is the one I came back to. And the ending, with Roman reading the “forecast” for Oakland was really soothing :)

  5. Mark

    Fun episode.

    You may want to look into ASMR for topic. This episode is a gateway into that phenomenon. Just go to youtube and search for ASMR. There a re a couple leaders in that genre (gentlewhispers, gibi, etc).

  6. Joe Baker-Malone

    Ha, this finally resolves something I’ve been wondering about for 20 years.
    At the beginning of “Weather Experience” by Prodigy there’s part of a (normal) weather report, and then a woman saying something like “southwesterly four, showers, good,” which never sounded like anything sensible to me before, and which I was always curious about.
    Now I know it’s part of the shipping forecast! Yay! Thanks 99pi!

  7. Angela Beck

    Ironically, I put on this episode to help me go to sleep. You do have a very soothing voice, and yes that is a compliment! And yes, I rewound the episode so I could catch the actual story this morning. :)

  8. John Sherman

    I loved this episode, as I do all 99% invisible podcasts. I also use the Calm meditation app and on occasion, it’s sleep stories. Many of them work for me, but not the reading of shipping forecast. I puzzle over the meaning of the seemingly random words and their relationship to one another. It is worse listening to the reading of the GDPR. As a specialist in human rights and legal matters, and trying to figure out what a privacy policy should look like, I found myself interested in the subject matter. I think I’ll stick to stories about butterflies and lavender fields.

  9. Carl Boyd

    The after-the-break piece with Drew Ackerman struck home for me, like a ship running aground:

    1) Dr Demento as sleep savior on Sunday nights, as a bullied tween dreading Monday? Check.

    2) Still using stories and audiobooks with just the right amount of interest and levity to pleasantly distract, yet not engaging enough to keep me up? Check.

    Thanks for affirming that I’m not the only weird adult who sleeps to bedtime stories :)

  10. One thing with mentioning is that the Shipping Forecast formed the introductuon to the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics – just before Elgar’s Nimrod begins…

  11. Fiona M

    Reminds me of the NOAA Weather Radio you can listen to in the US; though it’s not read by an actual person. For me though it was always a calming thing to hear. And useful obviously for going out on the water.

  12. Richard

    I enjoyed this episode, although I don’t think that a discussion of the shipping forecast is really complete without mentioning “Sailing By”, the theme that plays for about 1 minute prior to the late-night shipping forecast. (Clearly the episode’s composer was familiar with the tune, so it seemed odd not to mention it. Copyright issues, perhaps?)

    “Sailing By” is probably the most interesting design element of the shipping forecast. It was (apparently) originally intended to be a distinctive musical signature that seamen could listen out for when tuning in to the forecast — when you hear the strains of Sailing By, you know that you’ve got the right frequency and that the shipping forecast is about to begin.

    Like much of the shipping forecast, the use of Sailing By is clearly a historical anachronism, but remains an essential part of the late-night shipping forecast culture (and its soporific reputation). I’ve heard once or twice that Sailing By is one of the most oft-selected tracks on Desert Island Discs — no idea whether it’s true or not!

  13. There are two other pop songs that use the Shipping Forecast that I know of:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TopV4x1Zts

    Thomas Dolby’s Windpower – the broadcast starts at around 4:40 and runs thru fadeout. This was a favorite of mine as a kid because I had been on holiday and heard it on my nan’s radio and then suddenly here it was on a record! (This could even be Jefferson reading it, for all I know.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEezZH8_xyo

    Beck – Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton

    Sample starts at 5:17. Beck said: “”I remember coming into the studio one day and my producer was sitting there listening to [the shipping forecast] on his computer,” he says. “I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ He told me, ‘It’s the most relaxing thing in the world.’ He said he loves to listens to it in the bath.” Beck agreed – “the voices are just so pleasant” – and decided to recreate it on the finale to his new album, The Information, inviting an English friend (actress Rachel Shelley) into the studio to read out the coastal station reports for Tiree, Stornoway and Lerwick (showers at all three). “It kind of matched the mood of the song,” he says. (The producer mentioned is Nigel Godrich.)

    1. Greg B

      Ted – you beat me to it – the first I ever heard or knew of the shipping forecast was TD’s Windpower – great Nigel Godrich / Beck story

  14. Lynn

    For the whole episode I was waiting for Roman Mars to read the shipping forecast in his beautiful soothing voice… And he didn’t disappoint! It was really, really nice and calming. Will listen to this episode again when I need to fall asleep:)

  15. Mary

    I listened to this episode while I did my run this morning. It was the right length of time but not my fastest run for some reason! 😉 Thanks for another interesting episode, as so many 99pi episodes turn out to be.

  16. Alex

    Another great piece of British culture. The airwaves are littered with ‘useful’ information from the aeronautical equivalent of the shipping forecast (Shannon VOLMET) and remnants of the cold war like ‘the buzzer’ and the various number stations. The shipping forecast used to be prefaced with sea shanties, or at least that’s what I used to remember when I was a kid sailing with my uncle around Thames and Dover

  17. Alex

    Roger Waters’ last album Is This the Life We Really Want makes use of this during several songs. In this context, it’s more of an added sense of tension than it is relaxing. Listen to Bird in a Gale for a good example.

  18. Ryan R

    I am currently in San Diego, via Sacramento for a few years. However, I grew up on the peninsula and moved to Berkeley at 18, where I lived for 15 years. Your weather report at the end of this program gave me hella nostalgia. Thank you.

  19. cdmoore1972

    You could do a whole other episode just on songs that reference the Shipping Forecase. Blur’s Parklife album closes with “This is a Low,” which is heavily inspired by the Shipping Forecast. While on a tour of the United States, they would listen to the Shipping Forecast when they felt homesick. This is your big chance to interview Roger Waters, Thomas Dolby, and the guys from Blur.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SD8gO8TAr4s

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