Every day millions of people listen to the soothing tones of the BBC Shipping Forecast without having the faintest idea what it means.

Can there be in any language a mantra more soothing than "Dogger, Fisher, German Bight," particularly when it is uttered in the calming tones of the radio announcers whose job it is to read the BBC shipping forecast? Whether we are waiting for the news or not, it is almost impossible to turn off the radio once the shipping forecast has begun. Quite apart from being the last echo from an age when announcers wore dinner jackets, it gives us a glimpse into a world more mysterious than anything conjured up by Tolkien.

It is a world where Rain is Good, where Vikings in their forties wear Fair Isle sweaters, and the nearest you hear to an expletive is "Rockall". On a clear night, if you peer closely enough, you may even hope to see Finisterre dancing with Ginger Rogers.

Last Monday evening, the Disaster series on BBC2 told the tale of the sinking of the Christinaki, a Greek-owned bulk carrier that sank, with the loss of all 27 crew members, in a storm in the North Atlantic in 1994. In a generally over-acted recreation of the disaster (sailors fail to convince when they have gestures and intonation straight out of Rada) there was enough water splashing around to give a real feel of the torment of a storm at sea, but the most poignant moment of the programme came when the Shipping Forecast was heard on the sound track. Hearing that calm voice in the chaos of our own kitchens is reassuring enough, but hearing it against the background of a ship in distress really brought home its true potency.

Try yesterday's forecast:

Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire. North-westerly three or four increasing five or six. Occasional rain or sleet. Moderate or good.

You can hardly read those words without a feeling of well-being coming over you. That curious juxtaposition of "sleet" (which is the forecast of precipitation) and "moderate or good" (which is the visibility) lets you know you are dealing with someone who can laugh in the face of a storm of sleet.

Fisher, German Bight. North backing west or north west three, increasing four or five. Occasional rain later. Moderate or good.

Even a German Bight - probably from a rabid Rottweiler - cannot make the voice behind these remarkable broadcasts waver. Most of these poetic names were chosen by Captain Robert Fitzroy, the first head of the Meteorological Office, in 1860, though there have been a few changes since then: Channel split into Plymouth and Portland, Severn became Lundy; and Heligoland became German Bight. A bight, incidentally, is a smooth stretch of coastline. The most recent major change was prompted by the North Sea oil industry which produced a need for more information off the coast of Norway. So, in a moment of perfect inspiration, the Met Office came up with North Utsire and South Utsire, using the Norwegian word for "island".

Four times a day, seven days a week, at 0048, 0555, 1355 and 1750, the Shipping Forecast is there to reassure us all. As the lyrics of a ballad written by Douglas Adams say: "Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Help me make it through the night."

And they always finish just in time for the Greenwich time signal.