“Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay: south-westerly gale eight to storm 10, occasionally violent...” The problem with this particular shipping forecast was that it warned of a tempest which took place the day before.
For almost 90 years, the forecast’s familiar rhythmic strains have been broadcast on BBC radio. But at 48 minutes past midnight on Sunday 15 November, the wrong one was read out.
The error escaped the notice of most people listening to Radio 4 at the time, the vast majority of whom would have been tucked up in bed rather than battling the high seas. But one sharp-eared listener, David Newton from Easter Ross in Scotland, realised that the forecast – which predicted storm force winds in south-westerly areas – was exactly the same as one read out 20 hours earlier.
“The storm force 11 winds forecast for south westerly areas were announced, but by this time they had clearly been and gone,” he told Radio 4’s Feedback programme last Friday. “The entire transmission was a repeat from nearly 20 hours earlier. Was I the only sad person to spot it?”
It is unclear whether the erroneous broadcast prompted any seafarers to alter their ship’s courses unnecessarily but A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said it was extremely unlikely to have put anyone at sea in danger. Typically, fishermen do not rely on Radio 4 for weather updates, instead receiving them directly from the MCA through their vessel’s communication system.
The mistake happened when the late night radio announcer picked up the wrong email from the studio computer, which gave the previous day’s forecast. As she read it out, she even noted that it was for “05.05 on the 14th of November” despite this not tallying with the actual date or time.
David Anderson, Radio 4’s presentation editor, explained: “What went wrong is that somebody made a mistake. It was human error and a pretty bad one I am afraid to admit. The late night announcer at the end of the shift pulled out an email of what she thought was the right shipping forecast, and read it out completely unaware it was the wrong forecast. All I can say is that I am most terribly sorry we got that wrong. This was a big error on our part.”
The BBC has been broadcasting the shipping forecast since the 1920s. It is read out twice a day on Radio 4 at 5.20am and at 00.48am, with two additional broadcasts given on the long wave service at midday and just before the evening news.
This month’s error is only the second time in the history of the forecast that a mistake has been made. The other occurred about a year ago in the early morning slot – a correction was issued an hour later, during the Today programme.
The forecast’s primary role is to update those at sea on the condition of the waters around the British Isles, which are divided into 31 areas with distinctive names such as Dogger, Cromarty and Rockall. A vast amount of information – including wind speed and direction, gale warnings, rain, visibility and changes in air pressure – is given very quickly, using the same format each time. However, it has become something of a British institution over the years, and is enjoyed by a wide audience who find reassurance in its repetitive and rhythmic sentences. Mr Anderson said it had assumed a “strange, almost mythological status” among listeners, who enjoyed the “comfort factor” of hearing it as they drifted off to sleep.
HOW THE SHIPPING FORECAST HAS ENTERED MODERN CULTURE
- The band Radiohead referenced the mysterious names used in the shipping forecast in their song “In Limbo”, on the album Kid A: “Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea / I’ve got a message I can’t read”.
- The Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote a sonnet called “The Shipping Forecast”, which begins: “Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea / Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux / Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice / Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.”
- The song “This Is A Low”, on Blur’s album Parklife, includes the lyrics: “On the Tyne, Forth and Cromarty / There’s a low in the high forties.” The song also contains references to the sea areas Dogger and Thames: “Hit traffic on the Dogger bank / Up the Thames to find a taxi rank.”
- Before she was Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy wrote a sonnet called “Prayer” which concludes with the lines: “Darkness outside / Inside, the radio’s prayer – Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.”