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There’s a Norman Thelwell cartoon that often comes into my head when I hear the hallowed words ‘Attention All Shipping…’ it shows a crowded Norfolk Broads with the water barely visible beneath every imaginable floating object, from inflatable mattresses and dinghies, from rowing boats and motor cruisers, to fully rigged yachts – and as the words ‘Attention All Shipping’ are spoken from a radio on the deck of the yacht every single person in the drawing pauses to listen intently to the Shipping Forecast.

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The litany of the Shipping Forecast holds a fascination that extends far beyond the ships of the high seas or the inland coastal waters. There’s something timeless and reassuring about the forecast. It’s a national treasure of an island race, a cultural reference point that very few of us have any real understanding of at all. It might be anachronistic in the digital age but it still has a reassuring presence and the ability to make us thankful that we’re safely tucked up on dry land rather than in a storm force gale in zero visibility.

Here’s the forecast for today if you fancy having a go at reading the Shipping Forecast yourself:

The shipping forecast issued by the Met Office, on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, on Monday 04 August 2014 at 1625 UTC

There are warnings of gales in South-east Iceland.

The General synopsis at midday

High Biscay 1019 expected France 1021 by midday tomorrow. New low expected just west of Rockall 1005 by same time. Low Faeroes 1003 losing its identity

The area forecasts for the next 24 hours

Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties

Southwesterly 4 or 5 becoming variable 4. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good

Cromarty, Forth

West or southwest backing southeast 4 or 5. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good

Tyne, West Dogger

Variable 4 becoming southeasterly 4 or 5. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good

East Dogger, Fisher, German Bight

Variable mainly westerly or southwesterly 4. Slight. Showers. Good

Humber, Thames

Variable at times in east, otherwise mainly southerly or southeasterly 4, occasionally 5 in west. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good

Dover, Wight, Portland

Mainly south or southwest 4, occasionally 5. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good

Plymouth, Northwest Biscay

Southerly 4 or 5. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good, occasionally poor later

Southeast Biscay

Southwesterly 4 in northwest otherwise variable 3. Slight. Showers. Good

Trafalgar (Issued 2315 UTC Sun 03 Aug)

Northerly or northwesterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 in east. Slight or moderate. Fair. Good

FitzRoy

Mainly southwesterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 in northwest later. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good, occasionally poor

Sole, Lundy, Fastnet

South or southwest 4, occasionally 5. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good, occasionally poor

Irish Sea

South or southeast 4, occasionally 5. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good, occasionally poor

Shannon

South or southwest 4, occasionally 5 later. Moderate. Showers. Good, occasionally poor

Rockall, West Malin

Variable mainly southerly 4. Moderate. Showers. Moderate or good

East Malin

Southerly 4 backing southeasterly 4 or 5. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good

Hebrides

Southwesterly backing southeasterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 in north at first. Moderate. Showers. Good

Bailey

Westerly 5 in northeast at first otherwise variable 4. Moderate. Occasional rain or showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor

Fair Isle

Southwesterly backing southeasterly 4 or 5, occasionally 6 in west at first. Slight or moderate. Showers. Good

Faeroes

Variable 4 in north at first otherwise southwesterly 4 or 5 backing southeasterly 4. Mainly moderate. Occasional rain or showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor in north at first

South-east Iceland

Northeasterly 6 to gale 8 in northwest at first otherwise cyclonic 4 or 5. Moderate or rough. Occasional rain or showers, fog patches in northwest. Moderate or good, occasionally very poor in northwest

But where are these ‘non-places’, these ‘sea areas’ that are recounted four times a day in the forecast? Well, when first defined in the 1920’s the map looked something like this:

shipping areas 1924
It was a far simpler map that combined both inland (or coastal) waters and major sea areas.

The 2002 Met Office Map shows current sea areas used in the Forecast:

chart_seaarea

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The official poster confirming the current sea areas, how many could you reel off without looking?
large2002
Interestingly sea areas are slippery beasts, and their names can suddenly change as you cross national borders. Here, for example, is the poster published by the French equivalent of the Met Office, Meteo France
met-area-2
Oh, and there are many more ‘sea areas’  than I thought… They extend south towards western Africa…
hiseas1
…and west into the North Atlantic.
inshorewaters
Not to mention the ‘Report from Coastal Stations’ using data collected from light ships, island observatories and MAWS (Marine Automatic Weather Stations)…

MAWS_main

A million miles away from my experiences on the ‘high seas’ of the inland waterways it might all be, but fascinating stuff nonetheless. Oh, and by the way, if you’d like to know more about the Shipping Forecast, a good place to start is probably Charlie Connelly’s 2004 book ‘Attention All Shipping – A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast’ which explore behind the scenes of this broadcasting institution and finds a bizarre, quirky and fascinating story there to be told.

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