The Shipping Forecast began on MW (Medium Wave), in 1925. But now it is all change for the famous British institution. Dan Houston reports

News that there would be a reduced Shipping Forecast from BBC radio in spring 2024 led to mutterings of discontent among some devotees of this great British institution. But has anyone actually changed their routines at sea accordingly? No? That’s hardly surprising, given the traditional Shipping Forecast was superseded by online offerings more than two decades ago.

From at-a-glance synoptic charts giving graphic weather information through barometric lines and well-defined frontal systems to interactive sites like PredictWind or Windy, the old business of listening to the BBC Radio 4 announcer and taking down details in some form of shorthand became irrelevant for many sailors years ago, unless you were a long way offshore or could not get online.

As for making your own pressure and frontal system maps, based on the more detailed information from the coastal stations’ weather reports… well, we should offer a bottle of something good to anyone who still does that.

Last year the BBC announced it would cease the special programming for its Radio 4 Long Wave output, where the Shipping Forecast has been broadcast four times a day. It would make it the same as its output for Radio 4 on FM or DAB, where there have been only two Shipping Forecast broadcasts during the week, at 0048 and 0520.

This happened at the end of March and the Shipping Forecast broadcasts have now been reduced to twice a day during the week and three times a day at the weekend. This means that the 1201 forecast has been dropped completely and the Shipping Forecast is now at 0048 and 0520 seven days a week with the 1754 forecast being on Saturdays and Sundays only. The 1754 broadcast is a shorter forecast of just the sea areas.

Importantly, the more detailed inshore waters forecasts and the coastal stations are broadcast at 0048 (the full 22 coastal stations) and 0520 (13 coastal stations). The sea area Trafalgar, south of FitzRoy and the most southern area, is only covered in the 0048 forecast.

The Shipping Forecast began on MW (Medium Wave), in 1925. It changed to LW (Long Wave) on 200kHz in 1978, and moved a smidgeon to the left – the more efficient 198kHz – in 1988

Turning off Long Wave Shipping Forecast

On another, potentially more serious note, the BBC has warned that its LW output might soon cease altogether. This would drastically reduce the reach of the R4 Shipping Forecast, which has provided a safety net of good weather information four times a day for hundreds of miles beyond the coasts of Britain since it was first broadcast by the BBC in 1925. It had begun broadcasting in the UK by the Met Office as early as 1911, and before that by telegraph from 1861.

The BBC has periodically raised concerns about whether it can keep broadcasting on LW, citing difficulties in sourcing the large specialist valves used in the aerials’ output. The BBC outsourced its LW output from its station at Droitwich, plus two in Scotland, to Arqiva some 15 years ago.

The BBC runs quite a lot of output on both MW and LW. It has had to do this because FM, or VHF, is basically a line-of-sight medium, restricted by the curvature of the earth, and some areas of the UK are still without good coverage from FM stations.

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An important distinction between MW and LW versus FM is that the former are amplitude modulated (AM) radio waves which propagate across the surface of a territory, with a range of hundreds of miles – depending on the strength and efficiency of the signal frequency.

Remote glens of Scotland are a good example where LW signals will rattle their way into the most obscure locations.

Long Wave, with frequencies in Europe between 148.5kHz and 283.5kHz and wavelengths over 1,000m (R4’s is 198kHz and 1,514m respectively), is still the most efficient carrier of information in terms of both cost and reach.

And this is why the Shipping Forecast has been on LW – you can receive it loud and clear in places as far away as Santander or Sweden. It also travels better over water, to the extent that an area of sandstone or well drained land will impede the signal more than if the ground is clay.

All this means that if you’re anchored in an out-of-the-way bay in many parts of the British Isles, or Europe or Scandinavia, the Shipping Forecast on LW can still be the only way you can get an idea of the coming weather unless you have invested in a satellite system (expensive if you’re just cruising for just a couple of weeks a year).

The waters around Britain are divided into 31 sea areas. The Shipping Forecast main element is limited to a length of 350 words, extended to 380 words for the late night forecast which includes the southerly sea area Trafalgar. The most comprehensive forecast is the 0048 which includes all the sea areas, the coastal stations and inshore waters. It can take just over 10 minutes to read out.

Line of sight

Of course if you’re out of range of FM there is always the coastguard of the UK and Eire, who broadcast their area of the forecast at regular intervals during the day. This they announce on Ch16 VHF (also a line of sight medium) of your boat’s radio before switching to Ch67 – the small ships safety channel.

But two years ago sailing south from Scotland I noticed that while we could receive Ch16 fairly clearly, Ch67 was often unintelligible to us over several areas of the Irish Sea. We ended up being a full three days without a proper weather forecast and I was cursing myself for not bringing along my cheap and cheerful Roberts R9993 battery-run radio which has very good LW reception.

In the past I even wore a watch with four alarms pre-set for a few minutes before the Shipping Forecasts – my navigation tutor always espoused keeping up to date with the forecast for a better overall picture of the trend – where the fronts were and how fast they were travelling, say. The rule would also be to listen to the forecast for two or three days before going offshore for the same reason – to familiarise yourself with the terminology and trend.

So I find myself worrying about not having the safety net of those Shipping Forecasts. For a few decades now it’s been a comfort, to be able to hear and make notes of the detailed forecast, especially the recordings of the coastal stations dotted strategically around the UK. Importantly these give you wind force and direction, weather, visibility and the current pressure and its trend.

All the terms in the forecast have specific meanings, so if a station records pressure rising or falling ‘slowly’ that means a change of 0.1 to 1.5 millibars in the preceding three hours. ‘Mist’ means visibility of 1,100 to 2,200 yards, ‘fog’ is less than 1,100 yards and so on. The detail gives you enough knowledge to predict where the weather fronts are, and so to plan for shifts and changes in wind direction and force.

The Shipping Forecast areas

Reducing stress

A digital voice recorder reduces the stress of having to make accurate notes and, most importantly, you are up to date with the weather with just the simplest of kit; pencil, paper and radio. A wind-up radio obviates even the need for batteries, though these with LW are hard to find.

I know many who advocate for satellite systems and these have hugely dropped in price. With mini sat phones costing from around £300 you can buy one to use at one-off monthly rates of less than £50 now, with weather forecasts around £1 a pop. Starlink onboard internet is of course becoming increasingly popular with world cruisers, but with hardware set-up costs ranging from £500-£3,000, plus monthly data charges, it’s a substantial investment. Other systems like Iridium GO! are more established, and offer full wifi mid ocean. Nor should you forget single side band (SSB) where the forecast is broadcast by HM Coastguard on MF the medium frequency with a range of around 150 miles.

But many sailors may not want to invest in expensive equipment they might only use for a few days a year, or only when in the most out-of-reach places.

There are other factors too – the power consumption of a Starlink system needs to be managed, and always-on internet connectivity can drastically change the cruising experience.

Like most sailors, I don’t often use the Shipping Forecast, but I like the idea that it’s there. Even using the latest tablet and downloading moving images in colour from wifi, if not from a satellite far above, it’s good to know that if it fails you can tap into LW with a piece a kit your grandfather would have trusted.

But losing the LW forecasts – that 198kHz weather safety crutch – could put us back to before 1925 when we used a barometer, thermometer, logbook and pencil. We looked for halos round the moon; cloud layers lowering; a hard line on the horizon. We watched the birds and gazed very warily to weather.

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