A gale blew through Boundary Pass on Monday. It was a powerful storm that seemed lightweight initially but eventually packed a mean punch. The power went off around bedtime, branches fell on the roof. We huddled in bed as the storm raged outside, driving swarms of logs, smashing them into the rocks at the base of our cliff.
It was a reminder of the power of the wind and ocean as it bent trees, conjured enormous waves and roiled currents. “Colossal roughhousing,” I called it in an earlier Happy Monk blog post.
I’m amazed me that the marine traffic never seems to diminish during these “storms.” Those sailors have probably seen much worse out on the open ocean. The wind and waves here aren’t worth a second thought compared to the Herculean gales that must blow in the mid-Pacific.
Our inland waters may seem like small potatoes to the freighter captains. Still, thanks to weather technology and marine forecasts available online and over the radio, you can be sure they know what lies ahead.
A recent article in the New York Times drew attention to BBC Radio 4’s longstanding “Shipping Forecast.” It’s a broadcast of marine conditions for regions around the British Isles and parts of northern Europe. It’s issued three or four times daily In tersely worded reports (never more than 380 words), wind, precipitation and storm details are summarized for listeners, along with equally terse forecasts. They are concentrated troves of information that might mean a lot to a tugboat captain at sea off the Irish coast but mystifying to your average city dweller.
You can listen to compilations of the forecasts, including this one, “5 Hours of The Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4!” on YouTube. One after the other, these one-minute broadcasts are strung together for five hours. But watch out! You might be on the edge of a rabbit hole!
I once took the Power Squadron course but was quickly reminded that I had no sea legs. I get seasick at the slightest rocking motion and soon find myself in a world of nausea. I’m nowhere near the sea-faring type.
Viking, Dogger, Fisher …
Much of the language of the Shipping Forecast sounds indecipherable to me. How am I know what “veering winds” means, or “thundery low,” or “trailing tides?”
Each segment is purposely (or mercifully) short. But when heard in multiple-hour compilations, the broadcast takes on a poetic tone, hypnotic, an ode to the seas, an audio tour of Britain’s coastal regions. A testament to Britain’s weather and, at times, its terrible force.
In the Shipping Forecasts, the seas around Britain are broken into loosely defined segments, many of which reflect place names — Viking, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight — some with embellishments, like Scilly Automatic.
“Losing its identity by mid-day Tuesday”
The announcer usually begins with Viking, near the Orkney archipelago, before directing the listener’s attention around the waters of Britain. Here’s a small sample:
Now for the weather forecast for the in-shores of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, valid for the following 24 hours.
The general situation. A slow-moving slack area of low pressure lying across Northern Scotland will gradually fill and lose its identity by mid-day on Tuesday.
However, a thundery low over the near continent is expected to develop and move northwards across the southern North Sea on Tuesday and into Wednesday, affecting the southern and southeastern coast of England.
Cape Wrath to Rattery Head, including Orkney. Variable, becoming northeast 3 or 4 occasionally, and 5 later. Showers Thursday, good. Occasionally poor for a time.
Haiku-like weather phrases
The Shipping Forecast was initially shared via telegraph to ports starting in 1867. From there, signals were hoisted to warn passing ships of imminent danger. The Forecast was finally broadcast by the recently created BBC in 1920, where it has been constant for over 100 years. 1
Canada has no equivalent, though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) broadcasts navigational information over specific frequencies on marine radio.
As the announcer intones the place names (others include North and South Utshire, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, and Southern Iceland), along with haiku-like weather phrases such as “wintry showers, good, occasionally poor,” it’s easy to be lulled into another state, a feeling of peacefulness or even sleep. The broadcasts are almost prayers or incantations. Gregorian chants.
If you listen to an hour or more of the five-hour YouTube video, you’ll learn the names of some of the readers. They could be rock stars or mass hypnotists! The announcers, too, with their velvety voices and even tones, elevate the readings into something more profound, epic — far more than concentrated than bits of weather data.
Britons have listened to the Forecasts for generations — for navigation assistance and for their calming meditations. Artists and writers have been inspired by the poetry of the Shipping Forecasts, such as Seamus Heaney (poem: “The Shipping Forecast”), and rock bands Blur (song: “This is a Low”) and Radiohead (song: “In Limbo”) 2
The New York Times writer Grace Linden says she finds the Shipping Forecast compilations so soothing that she listens to them to fall asleep at night.
“Rain that is to come”
“If some people doze off to the sound of rain,” she says, “I fall asleep to broadcasters announcing the rain that is to come.”
I haven’t tried this, but I think I understand the appeal.
Here on Pender Island, we’re exposed to the full spectrum of nature, from quiet summer days of sublime beauty to the explosive winter storms that make us feel (well, me, at least) like cowering in the basement. Those who thrill at the storms do so because they experience nature’s enormity. When the storm passes and the power returns, we may feel tentative, as if we’ve been to the brink of something vast. We’ve tasted nature’s force and been reminded it could swallow us whole. The elemental forces are far more potent than our petty concerns and desires.
You feel small. You’ve probed the edges of things. And there is humility and comfort in that. Your worries are subsumed, and you can finally fall asleep if you’re someone like the New York Times writer.
The freighters that round the south end of Vancouver Island and face the Pacific alone are really up against it. The captains and crew members must find themselves rubbing at the edges of their own mortality as they occasionally endure potent storms. But with technology and the expertise of the sailors, the vast majority of ships survive the crossing.
The ships that navigate the British Isles must surely use the same technology. But they also have the Shipping Forecast: concise information, a reassuring voice that pulls no punches with the weather reports, and quietly, confidently, with a measure of poetry, assures them that all is well in the world.
See this 2017 article in The Guardian on the Forecast’s 150 years of service: “Dogger, Fisher, German Bight: shipping forecast celebrates 150 years“↩
Another Guardian article, this one from 2011, speaks of the Forecast’s part in British culture: “Shipping forecast: The poetry of North Utsire“↩