When, like Simon Calder, you can have the `north-east six, rain later' experience first-hand
To find out how much of an understatement "Force Five: fresh breeze" really is, take a cut-price boat trip around the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast, and feel that 24mph northerly "fresh breeze" ripping through your windcheater. A midwinter cruise from North Shields to North Utsire and back costs as little as pounds 50, and takes you through Tyne, Forties and South Utsire, narrowly missing Dogger and clipping Forth.

Even for listeners in the bath rather than Biscay, the Shipping Forecast is a wonderful piece of poetry. Four times each day, the solemn tones of the Radio 4 continuity announcer radiate from the Long Wave transmitter at Droitwich, Worcestershire (you can see this relic of Empire, and hear its interference with your radio, when you drive past on the M5). "North- east six, rain later, good becoming moderate" - the wind direction and speed, general weather and visibility are scribbled down by crew aboard fishing boats and supertankers, yachts and oil rigs. All the waters around the British Isles have been carved up into irregular polygons and allotted exotic names, with North and South Utsire the latest additions to the litany. These are sea areas on the coast of Norway. The precise meaning of Utsire (pronounced ut-seer-a by Radio Four) is shrouded in an impetuous North Sea fog.

Color Viking, which gamely cuts a cross-section through the shipping chart between the UK and Bergen, is a Channel ferry with attitude. She sails one of the oldest maritime links between Britain and Scandinavia, but her primary purpose at this time of year is to take Norwegians on Christmas shopping trips to Newcastle. Thus they avoid Norway's high taxes on everything from tobacco to trolls - both of which are prominently on sale in the huge on-board supermarket.

Your role is to make up the numbers, to be part of the passenger ballast filling the cabins and the bar-stools not already occupied by Norwegians. In return you get a berth for three nights (the middle one spent in port in Bergen) and four days at sea. Not that you can tell where you are once the door slams shut on your cabin. Cut-price cruisers are billeted in the bowels of the ship: below the truck deck and well beneath the water level. Your lowly position does not mean comfort is absent, though; every cabin has a built-in bathroom.

The company also throws in a buffet breakfast each morning. To judge by the bulging pockets and sleeves of some passengers, the extravagant spread of cheese, herring, eggs and meat provides snacks for the whole day. Full meals are expensive: an all-you-can-eat dinner weighs in at pounds 26, but includes plenty of fruit to help ward off scurvy.

Since the Norwegians are numerically and financially ascendant on the voyage, most on-board entertainment is aimed at them. The Tyne Pub is one corner of the vessel where the British hold sway. Lubricated by duty- free Newcastle Brown Ale, they indeed sway back and forth to the music of Phil Dorne, pianist. Like the Radio 4 forecast of air pressure in Shannon, most of the ensemble are "falling, slowly".

Not to your taste, perhaps, but more promising than the Club Viking. This Nordically sparse nightclub reeks of early Seventies decor and early Abba hits. The barman does good business in Jule ol (Christmas beer) and light trade in a cocktail called Stormy Weather - vodka, apricot liqueur and Cointreau. While the waves crash around outside, the house band earns just a ripple of applause. Take your portable radio out on deck, and the Radio 4 announcer reveals the latest from the Channel Light Vessel Automatic.

Even among the non-imbibers, a kind of virtual drunkenness soon sets in aboard Color Viking. You lurch unsteadily around the decks as sea area Forties roars. If the swell proves too strong for sleep, however, you can always go sightseeing. Under gloomy December skies, the daylight view from the deck is a monochromatic spectrum of greys. At night, this contracts to a narrow band of black. Yet as you roar into sea area Forties, the horizon becomes speckled with clusters of what look like Christmas- tree lights, each topped by a flame. You are sailing through the oil and gas fields that conferred wealth upon Norway and saved Britain from bankruptcy.

Dawn brings a fresh coat of grey to the sky, while Sue McGregor warns about an overturned lorry on the M1. Out on the North Sea, 8am GMT is the best time to ask to see the bridge. While Color Viking sails through open water, passengers are allowed to visit the vessel's control centre; this courtesy is not extended once she starts negotiating the tricky Norwegian coastline.

Climbing to the summit of the ship, you feel as if you have just walked into a hi-tech office. There is no sign of a big wooden wheel with a helmsman roped to it; everything is computer-controlled. Your mind is put at rest about the slight listing you felt during the night, when the First Officer shows the heeling controls that shift ballast between tanks. A deliberate list is introduced while the decks are being cleaned, so the water can run off into the sea. A Global Positioning Unit predicts Color Viking's precise arrival time, while the radar system computes the course and speed of any vessel in the surrounding area. All the electronics in the world cannot insure against accidents, though. Dents in the port side of the vessel were incurred a fortnight ago, in collision with a cargo ship in Stavanger harbour.

Nineteen hours out of North Shields, South Utsire finally subsides. Color Viking enters Norwegian coastal waters and the port of Stavanger, this time without incident. The place where she pauses to drop off a few passengers is right alongside a cluster of cottages so postcard-pretty they look as if the Norwegian Tourist Board must have paid for them to be built. Your first impression of Norway is of neat, bright triangles of clapperboard, supporting roofs of terracotta and gold and weatherbeaten green. The only impediment to this crisp tableau is the yellow road sign saying "England", reminding residents they can escape to the Tyne any time they wish.

Bergen is another seven hours north, so the on-board distractions sail on. The Club Viking acquires a new lease of life when bilingual bingo begins. Judging by the enthusiasm with which the British contingent played, some of them must have memorised every Norwegian number from en (one) to nitti (90). The bingo caller is a ship's officer named Bjorn. Two giggling mini-cruisers decide Bjorn's catchphrase is "Sex-sex", which is the way 66 sounds when Bjorn calls it out in Norwegian.

As with all the best cruises, passengers are given a pre-arrival briefing. Bjorn the bingo caller pops up again to prepare us for Norway, suggesting a late-night ascent in the funicular railway to the top of a nearby mountain, and running through the options for the following day. Color Viking's schedule is neatly devised to make the 20 hours spent moored in Bergen harbour seem like a two-day break. Passengers can come and go as they please, treating their floating hotel as if it were, well, a floating hotel. Shoppers are briefed about the alarming lack of bargains ashore, and told how to claim back Norwegian VAT - for any purchase of over pounds 30 you bring the receipts back on board, and the purser hands out cash for the amount of the tax. Back in the bar, the faces on a huddle of Norwegians reveal the grim desperation of drinkers who realise they will shortly be back in the land of the pounds 5 pint.

One day and one hour after leaving North Shields, the Color Viking slides into her berth at Bergen. Against a background buzz of static, 700 miles from Droitwich, Radio 4 still cuts comfortingly through. After the longest of nights on the waves, you know now why the shipping forecast is on Long Wave.

How to join the cruise

Simon Calder paid pounds 84 for a four-day voyage from Newcastle, visiting both Stavanger and Bergen, through Color Line (0191-296 1313). The price includes sharing a two-berth cabin and buffet breakfast each morning. A lower fare of pounds 50 applies if you share a four-berth cabin, but availability is limited. From 6 January until 26 March, children travel free when sharing a cabin with a minimum of one adult.

Who to ask

Norwegian Tourist Board, Charles House, 5-11 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (0171-839 6255).

The Shipping Forecast:

when to hear it

On Radio Four LW (198kHz) at 12.45am, 5.55am, 12.55pm and 5.50pm. A booklet on the forecast is available free by writing to the Enquiries Officer, The Met. Office, London Road, Bracknell, Berks RG12 2SZ.

CRUISERS' STORIES Cleo from Canada The voyage to Norway offered the chance to combine cruising and skiing. Did Cleo find snow? "No - unusually for mid-December, the resort of Voss was closed. So rather than throwing myself into the harbour, I went shopping in Bergen and found a slightly used skiing sweater at the Salvation army shop for only 50 kroner [about pounds 5]. I also found a Norwegian skier!"

Morten from Redditch

Morten lives in Redditch, but is in love with Nordic life. Did the voyage satisfy his Scandinavian affinity?

"I did bond with an eight-foot troll, so to speak [an oversized version of this legendary Norwegian creature embraces visitors to Bergen]. But there just wasn't time to do the place justice, and the trip made me determined to work my way around Scandinavia at some time in the future."

Emma from stoke

Emma went sailing in search of a real-life Viking. Did she find her Scandinavian soul-mate?

"No, but I spotted quite a lot of likely prospects. I loved climbing down the mountain at midnight through the pine trees with streams rushing past, although at one point, I tripped and cut my knee and saw my blood rushing past, too."