Every day in the UK, the Meteorological Office issues four weather forecasts for people in boats. The Shipping Forecasts are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 00.48 and 05.20 (on long wave and FM), and 12.01 and 17.54 (usually on long wave only, except at weekends).
While more sophisticated systems exist for receiving weather reports at sea, you can’t always rely on the Internet if you’re bouncing about on a fishing boat somewhere near the Outer Hebrides.
However, while the Shipping Forecast is crucial for mariners, each broadcast attracts not just thousands but hundreds of thousands of listeners. Not all of whom are anywhere near a large body of water.
Perhaps it’s the poetry. The waters around the British Isles are divided into 31 sea areas. (There’s a useful map here.) Their names, from Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire through to Shannon, Rockall, and Malin, have the pleasant chimes of distant magic realms we shall never see.
Perhaps it’s the predictability. The forecast follows a strict format: Region. Wind. Sea state. Rain. Visibility.
Perhaps it’s the enigma. “Northwesterly 5 to 7, backing westerly 5 or 6 later. Moderate or rough. Squally showers. Good, occasionally poor.” Lovely but, frankly, a mystery to most of us.
Perhaps it’s just the rhythmic intonation that soothes souls on dry land. Listening to Radio 4 just before 1am, we find the Shipping Forecast the broadcasting equivalent of hot chocolate; it helps us drift off to sleep.
Mess with the shipping forecast at your peril.
In 2002, they did.
Away went the name of my favourite area: Finisterre. Finis terre translates as “the end of the earth”. When I was little, I liked to imagine ships contemplating the edge of the world as they went sailing by it. The huge bit of sea the name referred to, off the north-west of Spain, was re-named after an agreement by Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco to co-ordinate the names of their shipping areas. Spain uses the term Finisterre for a different bit of sea, so they asked the UK to come up with a new name.
Naturally, there was an outcry.
After all, if you’ve settled down with your Ovaltine at the same time for the past twenty years, during which Biscay and Trafalgar have always presaged Finisterre… Then suddenly this changes? Well, might as well argue that Fastnet doesn’t always follow Sole and Lundy. Unthinkable.
Naturally, the protests went nowhere. Maritime safety is more important than your bedtime ritual, it turns out.
I feel they made the right choice in the renaming. Fitzroy. After Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, a meteorologist who invented the very word “forecast”. FitzRoy also navigated HMS Beagle on its voyage around the world in the 1830s, a task much appreciated by one Charles Darwin.
So, Finisterre faded but the Shipping Forecast sails smoothly on.
Perhaps its significance equals that of the Ravens in the Tower. If the night ends without an incantation of Bailey, Fair Isle, and Faeroes, the kingdom will indeed have fallen.