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And now The Shipping Forecast

5th October 2016

What is a shipping forecast

The shipping forecast is a twice daily broadcast on FM (four times on LW) and is compiled by the Met Office, principally to provide the maritime industry with ongoing information about the prevailing weather, atmospheric and visibility conditions at sea. As well as a general overview of the seas around the British Isles and issuing any weather warnings, the forecast is made for 31 discrete areas of the waters.

It is broadcast at precisely the same times each day; 0048, 0520, 1201 and 1754 hours On BBC radio 4

The format of each broadcast is very strictly adhered to. It is thought that this brevity and consistency make the forecast more understandable and easier to make quick notes on. The forecast for each area is limited to 370 words and is structured as follows:


“And now the shipping forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at XXXX today/date.”

Gale warnings and general synopsis

Then follows, if any, a summary of any gale warning in force. For example:

“There are warnings of gales in Humber and Thames.”

This is followed by a general synopsis giving position, pressure (in millibars), track of pressure areas. For example:

“High Scandinavia 1046, slow moving, intensifying 1049 by midnight tonight. Low north Fitzroy 1013, slow moving, filling 1015 by same time. New high expected southwest Fitzroy 1025 by that time”

Individual forecast

Each of the 31 areas is then named and a forecast is given which starts with wind direction, strength of wind, precipitation and visibility. It is common for areas to be grouped together if their forecasts are the same. An example of this format would be:

“South East Iceland, North East veering 4 or 5 occasionally 6 later; heavy snow showers; good, becoming poor in showers”

Extended forecasts are broadcast with additional inshore waters forecasts.

Definition of the terms

Anyone who has ever listened to the shipping forecast will be more or less familiar with the slow and routine way in which the announcements are given. They seem to have a repetitive rhythm, alluring language and a cadence of their own which lends itself to the feeling that the broadcast is poetic; however, for the layman, the language used has a great deal of important meaning for seafarers. Here, we look at the terminology that is in use in the forecasts.

Gale warnings are issued on the basis that winds of at least Beaufort force 8 (34-40 knots) or gusts reaching 43-51 knots have been recorded. Severe gale means winds of force 9 (41-47 knots) or gusts reaching 52-60 knots, Storm means winds of force 10 (48-55 knots) or gusts reaching 61-68 knots, Violent Storms means winds of force 11 (56-63 knots) or gusts of 69 knots or more with Hurricane Force being winds of force 12 (64 knots or more).

The timing of these gale warnings is issued in incremental onsets with terms of Imminent (within six hours of the time of issue), Soon (within six to twelve hours of time of issue), Later (more than twelve hours after the issued warning with Perhaps Later referring to a possibility of a later storm.

When the wind direction is given, it refers to the direction FROM which the wind is blowing and follows with either veering (meaning it is changing in a clockwise direction), backing (changing in an anti-clockwise direction) or becoming cyclonic (considerable change in direction as wind moves across a depression).

Sea state is described as being Smooth (wave height of less than 0.5m), Slight (wave height of 0.5-1.25m), Moderate (wave height of 1.25-2.5m), Rough (wave height of 2.5-4.0m), Very Rough (wave height of 4.0-6.0m), High (wave height of 6.0-9.0m), Very High (wave height of 9.0-14.0m) or Phenomenal (wave height of 14.0m or more).

Visibility is defined as being Good (more than 5 nautical miles), Moderate (between 2 and 5 nautical miles), Poor (between 1km and 2 nautical miles) or Fog (less than 1km).

The movement of a weather system can be described as being Slowly (moving at less than 15 knots), Steadily (moving at 15-25 knots), Rather Quickly (moving at 25-35 knots), Rapidly (moving at 35-45 knots) or Very Rapidly (moving in excess of 45 knots).

A description of how pressure is changing is split into one of five categories; Rising/Falling Slowly (Pressure change of 0.1 to 1.5 hPa in the preceding three hours), Rising/Falling (Pressure change of 1.6 to 3.5 hPa in the preceding three hours, Rising/Falling Quickly (Pressure change of 3.6 to 6.0 hPa in the preceding three hours), Rising/Falling Very Rapidly (Pressure change of more than 6.0 hPa in the preceding three hours) or Now Rising/Falling (Pressure has been falling (rising) or steady in the preceding three hours, but at the time of observation was definitely rising (falling)).



Southeast Iceland

Named after the island around which the area covers a region in the North Atlantic having co-ordinates 63°35’N 018°00’W 61°10’N 011°30’W 63°20’N 007°30’W 65°00’N 013°35’W. It borders the Faeroes and Bailey to the south.


So-called because of the islands it surrounds, the Faeroes is a region in the North Atlantic bordering the Hebrides to the south, Southeast Iceland to the north, Fair Isle to the east and Bailey to the west. Its co-ordinates are 63°20’N 007°30’W 61°10’N 011°30’W 59°30’N 007°15’W 61°50’N 002°30’W.

Fair Isle

Named after the island of Fair Isle (situated between Orkney and Shetland) this area is where the North Sea meets the North Atlantic. Its co-ordinates are 61°50’N 002°30’W 59°30’N 007°15’W 58°40’N 005°00’W 58°30’N 003°00’W 58°30’N 000°00’W 61°00’N 000°00’W and it borders Faeroes to the north west, Hebrides to the west, Viking to the east, Cromarty and Forties to the south.


With co-ordinates of 61°00’N 000°00’W 61°00’N 004°00’E 58°30’N 004°00’E 58°30’N 000°00’W, Viking is named after a sandbank in the North Sea and is situated to the North East of the Scottish coast and to the west of Norway. It borders North Utsire to the west, Forties to the south and Fair Isle to the west. It was reduced in size in 1984 following the introduction of North Utsire and South Utsire.

North Utsire

Named after the Norwegian island of Utsira, this area has co-ordinates of 61°00’N 004°00’E 61°00’N 005°00’E 59°00’N 005°35’E 59°00’N 004°00’E. It was formed in 1984 to coordinate with the neighbouring country of Norway and was once a part of the Viking area.

South Utsire

Having co-ordinates of 59°00’N 004°00’E 59°00’N 005°35’E 57°45’N 007°30’E 57°45’N 004°00’E the area of South Utsire lies south of North Utsire and borders Norway.


With co-ordinates of 57°00’N 002°10’W 57°00’N 001°00’W 58°30’N 001°00’W 58°30’N 003°00’W, Cromarty is named after the river Cromarty and lies nestled in the north-eastern headlands of Scotland.


Named after a sand bank in the North Sea, the region of Forties has co-ordinates of 58°30’N 001°00’W 58°30’N 004°00’E 56°00’N 004°00’E 56°00’N 001°00’W. It lies directly north of Dogger, borders German Bight, Fisher and South Utsire to the east, Viking and Fair Isle to the north and Cromarty, Forth and Tyne to the west.


Introduced in 1955 when Dogger was split into two, Fisher has co-ordinates of 57°45’N 004°00’E 56°00’N 004°00’E 56°00’N 008°10’E 57°05’N 008°35’E 57°45’N 007°30’E and lies directly north of German Bight. It is also named after a sand bank in the North Sea.


So called because of the river estuary, Forth has co-ordinates of 55°40’N 001°50’W 56°00’N 001°00’W 57°00’N 001°00’W 57°00’N 002°10’W.


Named after the estuary from which the river flows to, Tyne has co-ordinates of 54°15’N 000°20’W 54°15’N 000°45’E 56°00’N 001°00’W 55°40’N 001°50’W and covers the area to the north east of England, bordering Humber to the south, Dogger to the east and Forth to the north.


Named after a sand bank in the North Sea, Dogger covers co-ordinates 57°00’N 002°30’E 56°00’N 001°00’W 54°15’N 000°45’E 54°15’N 004°00’E 56°00’N 004°00’E.

German Bight

Formerly known as Heligoland (until 1956), German Bight covers an area of the North Sea with co-ordinates 56°00’N 008°10’E 56°00’N 004°00’E 54°15’N 004°00’E 53°35’N 004°40’E 52°45’N 004°40’E and borders Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands.


Named after the river estuary, Humber has co-ordinates of 52°45’N 001°40’E 52°45’N 004°40’E 53°35’N 004°40’E 54°15’N 004°00’E 54°15’N 000°20’W.


Again, known for the estuary of the river, Thames borders the south of the North Sea and the English Channel and has the co-ordinates 51°15’N 001°25’E 51°15’N 002°55’E 52°45’N 004°40’E 52°45’N 001°40’E. It links England and Belgium.


Stretching from England to France, Dover is the only zone named after a port and has co-ordinates of 50°45’N 000°15’E 50°15’N 001°30’E 51°15’N 002°55’E 51°15’N 001°25’E.


Named after the isle, Wight has co-ordinates of 50°35’N 001°55’W 49°45’N 001°55’W 50°15’N 001°30’E 50°45’N 000°15’E and stretches to the north west of France.


Named after the place, Portland covers the co-ordinates of 50°25’N 003°30’W 48°50’N 003°30’W 49°45’N 001°55’W 50°35’N 001°55’W.


Stretching from the southwestern most tip of England to the most northwestern parts of France, Plymouth covers 50°05’N 005°45’W 50°00’N 006°15’W 48°27’N 006°15’W 48°27’N 004°45’W 48°50’N 003°30’W 50°25’N 003°30’W and borders Biscay to the south, Portland to the east, Lundy to the north and Sole to the west.


Named for the Bay of Biscay, this zone (co-ordinates 48°27’N 006°15’W 43°35’N 006°15’W 48°27’N 004°45’W) nestles between Spain and France.


Renamed in 2002 after the founder of the Met Office, this area was originally known as Finisterre and has the co-ordinates 48°27’N 015°00’W 41°00’N 015°00’W 41°00’N 008°40’W 43°35’N 006°15’W 48°27’N 006°15’W.


Marking Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain, this zone is the southernmost area covered by the shipping forecast and stretches beyond the south coast of Portugal. It has the co-ordinates 35°00’N 015°00’W 35°00’N 006°15’W 41°00’N 008°40’W 41°00’N 015°00’W.


Named after a sand bank west of the Scilly Isles, Sole has the co-ordinates 50°00’N 006°15’W 50°00’N 015°00’W 48°27’N 015°00’W 48°27’N 006°15’W.


Having co-ordinates of 51°35’N 010°00’W 50°00’N 010°00’W 50°00’N 006°15’W 52°30’N 006°15’W, Fastnet is so named because of its namesake rock; 6.5 miles south of Cape Clear, this outcrop is officially the most southerly point of the Republic of Ireland.


Connecting Cornwall and South Wales to Ireland, Lundy is named after the island in the Bristol Channel and has co-ordinates of 52°30’N 006°15’W 50°00’N 006°15’W 50°05’N 005°45’W 52°00’N 005°05’W.

Irish Sea

With co-ordinates of 54°50’N 005°05’W 54°45’N 005°45’W 52°30’N 006°15’W 52°00N 005°05’W, Irish Sea covers the stretch of the same waters connecting England Ireland.


With the open Atlantic to its west, Shannon has the co-ordinates of 53°30’N 015°00’W 50°00’N 015°00’W 50°00’N 010°00’W 51°35’N 010°00’W 53°30’N 010°05’W and is named after the river estuary.


Named after a rock stack in the North Atlantic ocean, Rockall has co-ordinates of 58°00’N 010°00’W 58°00’N 015°00’W 53°30’N 015°00’W 53°30’N 010°05’W 54°20’N 010°00’W and barely touches the north western most parts of Ireland.


Named after a sandbank in the North Atlantic situated between Scotland and Iceland, Bailey has co-ordinates of 62°25’N 015°00’W 58°00’N 015°00’W 58°00’N 010°00’W 60°35’N 010°00’W.


Incorporating the previous region of the Minches Sea in 1983, the Hebrides has co-ordinates of 60°35’N 010°00’W 57°00’N 010°00’W 57°00’N 005°50’W 58°40’N 005°00’W.


With co-ordinates of 57°00’N 005°50’W 57°00’N 010°00’W 54°20’N 010°00’W 54°45’N 005°45’W 54°50’N 005°05’W, Malin is named after Malin Head.

Uniquely British, the shipping forecast is broadcast on Radio 4, four times a day on LW and twice daily on FM. Produced by the Met Office for the BBC, the shipping forecast provides mariners with important information about the sea and weather conditions in 31 areas around the British Isles as well as issuing warnings.

These hypnotic transmissions have become part of a much wider culture in the UK with many regular Radio 4 listeners fascinated by the dulcet repetition of these unusually sounding maritime regions. In fact, the forecast receives more listeners than actually demand it and plans to move the slot by just 12 minutes in 1995 provoked such public outcry that they were scrapped immediately. Described by fans as ‘poetic’ and having the cadence of a ‘lullaby’, the shipping forecast is a part of the British psyche, representing our maritime history and the seas continuing influence of our culture. In the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the shipping forecast was set to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ and transmissions of this iconic broadcast have been sampled by the likes of The Prodigy, Chumbawamba and Blur. The forecast features in the works of Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Peter James as well as playing iconic parts in TV programmes such as ‘Black Books’, ‘As Time Goes By’ and ‘Ever Decreasing Circles. However, the regularity of the broadcast has also caused controversy. In 2011, the shipping forecast cut in to the dying stages of an important Test Match Special just moments before the last wicket was taken by England. When transmission of the event returned the game was all over.

First broadcast almost 150 years ago, the shipping forecast remains an essential part of a skipper's arsenal when it comes to navigating safely around the British Isles. In this beginners guide to the broadcast, we take a brief look at the history, the format and some of the definitions used in the transmission.

A brief history of the shipping forecast

Following a severe storm which sank the Royal Charter in 1859 off the coast of Anglesey killing 471 people, it was obvious that an early warning system for storms was needed. Admiral Robert Fitzroy, founder of the Meteorological Office, had been collecting data from various locations around the UK using anemometers and from ships log books in the hope of understanding weather patterns at sea. Fitzory approached the UK Government, presented his data and proposed a system that would become the world’s first forecasting model. Fitzroy was given the go-ahead and the first broadcast was issued on 6 February 1861.

When Fitzory died in 1866, the transmissions stopped but public outcry of the cessation of the broadcasts prompted then to be recommenced in 1867. Since they were returned to the air, they have been issued each and every day. The format of the system remains largely unchanged from that original broadcast almost 150 years ago.

Good outlook

There is no doubting the importance, despite the modern technology available, of the shipping forecast nor its influence over British maritime history. Fortunately, the outlook for the broadcast looks good with funding guaranteed despite recent austerity cuts. For more information on the shipping forecast you can check out this guide here

Don’t forget, you can access the shipping forecast and many other weather an tide forecasts on FAFB click here

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