The Shipping Forecast

The Shipping Forecast


The Shipping Forecast is a seemingly incomprehensible BBC Radio broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas surrounding the British Isles. It is produced by the UK Meteorological Office (Met Office) and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

It was first broadcast on 1 January 1924, making it 100 years old this year.

The primary purpose of the Shipping Forecast is to provide vital weather information to mariners to ensure safe passage at sea. This is especially important for fishermen, sailors and commercial ships navigating the often treacherous waters surrounding the British Isles.

Lives being lost at sea was a big deal in the 19th century, and in October 1859 the steam clipper Royal Charter, at the tail end of a return voyage from Australia, was wrecked in a strong storm off Anglesey. 450 people lost their lives. In response to this tragedy, a precursor to what would eventually become the Shipping Forecast, was established by Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the world’s first professional weather forecaster. (He even coined the term “forecaster”.)

For the purposes of the forecast, the waters around the British Isles are divided into 31 sea or weather areas. The forecast begins by listing any areas with gale warnings, followed by a general synopsis of pressure areas, then a forecast for each sea area, starting with “Viking” and moving clockwise, covering wind speed and direction, precipitation and visibility.

The forecasts (usually 350 words, and limited to 380 words) are short and follow a very strict and somewhat coded format. All words used are tightly defined.

Here’s an example of an area forecast, complete with our [bracketed explainers]:

Viking, Forties, Dogger. [the areas] Southwest 5 or 6, increasing to gale 8. [wind strength as per Beaufort scale] Occasional rain. [precipitation] Moderate or good. [visibility]

Hearing is better. You can listen to a five hour compilation of Shipping Forecasts HERE … or listen to some of the most recent forecasts HERE.

The broadcast times (UK local) are also weirdly specific: 00:48, 05:20, 12:01 and 17:54. This regularity serves to enhance safety, coordination and convenience for mariners, while also reflecting historical practices and considerations related to broadcasting logistics.

Listening to the 00:48 Shipping Forecast has also become a comforting end-of-day ritual that helps many people get settled for sleep, and since 1967 this broadcast has been preceded by the playing of "Sailing By", a light orchestral piece composed by Ronald Binge in 1963. The piece has come to mean a lot to many, and it is common to have it requested for playing at funerals. Listen to it HERE.

The Shipping Forecast has inspired numerous works of art, literature, music and even fashion. It has been referenced in poems, songs, novels and plays, reflecting its deep-rooted influence on British culture. Its calming effect was put to good use by the actor Olivia Colman who shamefully confessed in a 2017 Vanity Fair interview that listening to the Shipping Forecast through an earpiece helped her keep her emotions in check while filming some of the more emotional scenes on The Crown, to accurately portray the cool and collected character of Queen Elizabeth II.

In summary, the Shipping Forecast has transcended its practical purpose (the vast majority of listeners would have no clue what any of it means) to become a much loved British cultural icon. Its distinctive rhythmic and poetic language, combined with its association with maritime traditions, has captured the imagination of many who have no direct connection to the sea.

The Shipping Forecast serves as an ode to the British people’s enduring relationship to the sea, and a reminder of the waves that proud island nation so effectively ruled.

Story Idea: Nigel Marsh



1 & 5. Map of Sea Areas and Coastal Weather Stations referred to in the Shipping Forecast
2. BBC Shipping Forecast, 2023
3. A depiction of the Royal Charter, 1859
4.  Vice-Admiral 
Robert FitzRoy, circa 1850
6. Audio: 5 Hours of The Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4
7. Audio"Sailing By" composed by Ronald Binge in 1963
8. Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, Seasons 3 and 4

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