The Shipping Forecast: a Map of Britain's Splendid Isolation

The Shipping Forecast is quite possibly the most British thing ever.


The general synopsis at midday: High west Sole 1028 expected east Sole 1019 by midday tomorrow. Low southern Portugal 1010 losing its identity. The area forecasts for the next 24 hours. Viking, North Utsire: Northwesterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 at first. Moderate or rough. Occasional rain. Good, occasionally poor. 

The Shipping Forecast is quite possibly the most British thing ever. It’s quirkier than cricket, defiantly old-fashioned and ceremonial, and as reassuringly regular as Big Ben (1). Produced by the UK’s Meteorological Office, it's broadcast four times a day by BBC Radio Four.

But it is more than mere maritime meteorology. For over 90 years, the Shipping Forecast has been a punctual reminder of Britain’s island status – a declaration of geopolitical detachment expertly disguised as a weather bulletin. Splendid isolation masquerading as shifting isobars (2). And as such, one of the greatest examples of classic British understatement. If that isn’t an oxymoron.

South Utsire: Northwesterly 5 or 6. Moderate or rough. Occasional rain. Good, occasionally poor. Forties, Cromarty: Northwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 at first. Moderate, occasionally rough in northeast Forties. Rain or drizzle, fog patches developing. Moderate or good, occasionally very poor.

Listing the weather conditions in 31 sea areas surrounding the British Isles, the Shipping Forecast is read out at 5.20 am, 12.01 pm, 5.54 pm and 00.48 am. The first and last broadcasts of the day also include reports from additional weather stations and inshore waters forecasts. The last one also includes an outlook for next-day weather across the UK itself. 

Forth, Tyne, West Dogger: Westerly or northwesterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 at first. Slight or moderate. Fair. Good. East Dogger, Fisher, German Bight: Northwesterly 5 or 6. Moderate, occasionally rough. Fair then occasional rain, fog patches later. Moderate or good, occasionally very poor later. 

Much of the Forecast’s charm derives from the – literally – outlandish names of the sea areas listed in the bulletin. The names derive from sandbanks (e.g. Dogger, Bailey), estuaries (Forth, Thames, Shannon), islands or islets (Wight, Rockall, Utsire), towns (Dover), or other geographic features (e.g. Malin Head, Ireland’s northernmost point).

Humber, Thames: West or northwest 4 or 5. Slight or moderate. Mainly fair. Good. Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth: Variable 3 or 4. Slight. Fair. Good. 

One is named FitzRoy, after the captain of HMS Beagle, Britain’s first professional weatherman and the founder of the Met Office. The southernmost region, Trafalgar is only mentioned standard in the last forecast of the day. The regions are always listed in the same order, starting north with Viking, between Scotland and Norway, and then proceeding in a roughly clockwise direction:

Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar, FitzRoy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes and Southeast Iceland. 

Biscay: Northeast 4 or 5, increasing 6 at times. Slight or moderate. Fair. Good. Southeast Fitzroy: Northerly or northeasterly 5 or 6, occasionally 7 at first. Moderate or rough. Showers. Good. 

The map shown here also lists the coastal weather stations mentioned in the Shipping Forecast:

(1) Tiree, (2) Stornoway, (3) Lerwick, (4) Fife Ness, (5) Bridlington, (6) Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, (7) Greenwich Light Vessel Automatic, (8) Jersey, (9) Channel Light Vessel Automatic, (10) Scilly Automatic, (11) Valentia, (12) Ronaldsway, (13) Malin Head

A few others are mentioned only in the 00:48 broadcast: Boulmer, Milford Haven, Liverpool Crosby, Machrihanish Automatic, among others. 

Northwest Fitzroy: Northeasterly 4 or 5 becoming variable 3 or 4. Moderate. Rain later in west. Good. Sole: Variable 3 or 4, becoming southerly 4 or 5 in west. Slight or moderate. Rain later in west. Good. 

 

One of the Shipping Forecast’s attractions to others than fishermen and sailors is its poetic effect, the result of its very strict format and an arcane terminology, only intelligible to the initiated.

Each bulletin begins with exactly the same opening line, and follows the same structure. Preceded by gale warnings if necessary, a General Synopsis gives the position, pressure in millibars and track of pressure areas. Then follows the forecast for each of the 31 areas, sometimes with some areas grouped together if they have the same outlook. Each of these lists wind direction and strength, precipitation if applicable, and visibility (‘good’ for more than 5 nautical miles, ‘poor’ for less than 2 nm, and ‘fog’ for less than 1,000 metres). The whole thing never exceeds 370 words.

Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea: Westerly 4 or 5 at first in east Lundy, otherwise variable 3 or 4. Smooth or slight, occasionally moderate in Fastnet. Fair. Good. Shannon, Rockall: Southerly or southwesterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 in west. Slight or moderate, becoming moderate or rough. Rain later in west. Mainly good. 

The gap between Radio Four’s last programme of the day and the final Shipping Forecast, at 48 minutes past midnight, is plugged with as much as necessary of ‘Sailing By’, an orchestral piece by Ronald Binge, otherwise famous for his arrangements for Mantovani. The repetitive waltz helps sailors find the right frequency. For the many landlubbers tuning in to the last Shipping Forecast of the day, the cozy number signals that it’s almost time to turn in for the night.

Malin: Southwest 4 or 5. Slight or moderate. Mainly fair. Good. Hebrides: West 5 or 6, backing southwest 4 or 5. Moderate. Occasional drizzle. Good, occasionally poor. 

Thousands use the day’s last forecast as a lullaby. Adding to its hypnotic, soporific effect is the fact that it’s read out at a deliberately slow pace, to allow seafarers to make notes. The strange place-names and the weird jargon give the Shipping Forecast a magical shine. And perhaps they give the thousands tucked away safe in their beds pause to think about those out at sea at that very moment, in the dark, listening to the same bulletin.

The forecast is followed by God Save the Queen, after which it’s exactly 1 am, and BBC World Service takes over.

Bailey: West backing south or southeast 5 or 6, decreasing 4 for a time. Moderate. Occasional rain. Good, occasionally poor. Fair Isle, Faeroes:West or northwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 at first, becoming variable 3 or 4 at times later. Mainly moderate. Occasional rain, fog patches developing. Moderate or good, occasionally very poor. 

The Shipping Forecast has made a huge mark on music, literature and the wider culture. It inspired songs by Jethro Tull, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Wire, Blur, Radiohead, Tears for Fears, British Sea Power, Beck and the Prodigy, among others, and it was used in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Nobel-prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney wrote a sonnet called ‘The Shipping Forecast’, and British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy mentions “the radio’s prayer” in one of her poems. The programme is used in books, films, tv series, and has been parodied countless times (once as ‘The Shopping Forecast’, listing UK supermarkets instead of sea regions).

Southeast Iceland: Cyclonic becoming easterly or southeasterly 4 or 5, increasing 6 or 7 later in west. Moderate, occasionally rough. Occasional rain. Good, occasionally poor. Trafalgar: Cyclonic 4 in southeast, otherwise northerly 5 to 7. Slight or moderate in southeast, otherwise moderate or rough. Thundery showers. Good, occasionally moderate.

Here is BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast page. Quoted text is that of the Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office at 16.25 on Monday 21 March 2016, retrievedhere from the Met Office website. Map of the sea regions by Emoscopes, found here on Wikimedia Commons.

Update 27 March 2016: changed the composer's name from Ronald "Ronnie" Biggs, whose fame derives from his participation in the Great Train Robbery. Thanks Aneel for pointing out the error!

Update 11 January 2017: Many thanks to Janos Vargha for sending in this news item about this artwork by Jane Tomlinson, awarded the John C Bartholomew Award for Thematic Mapping by the British Cartographic Society. 

Strange Maps #774

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) Even more so, since Big Ben has been silenced since 21 August 2017 for maintenance, for a period of up to four years. The bell will still chime for special events such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday. The hourly bell chimes will start again in 2021.  

(2) Insert Brexit reference here.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.