The General Synopsis At Midnight

‘Sailing By’ (and saying goodbye)

The General Synopsis At Midnight kicked off when Gordon Snell presented me with the inaugural Maeve Binchy Travel award in UCD’s Newman House on May 27th 2014. With Gordon SnellAnd look, here we are. I think the chap standing between us is a pickpocket. Since then, I visited the 31 Sea Areas of the Shipping Forecast by land, water and air and – in the case of those I explored through their folklore or history – by making things up. And now, six months later, it’s time to put the map away and listen to Sailing By, the music by Ronald Binge that accompanies the 0048 broadcast. (Have a listen, but be warned: it’s hypnotic.) If you’re new to this project, then the easiest thing is to back to the beginning and work your way forward. It’s a blog, not Serial – I know, right? as Sarah Koenig might say, like, right? – it doesn’t really matter if you read them in the wrong order, but it would make more sense to start here, Counting Down To Midnight.

Among other highlights, I’ve curled up – literally – in a curved bunk high in the Fastnet Rock lighthouse and nodded off while watching its six-tonne lamp flash 50 kilometres into the dark night. In a heatwave I tootled around the Isles of Scilly, where in 1707 Admiral Sir Cloudsely Shovell lost his fleet of four ships to the rocks because he couldn’t understand what direction they were heading. (Unlucky for him, yet a happy ending for the rest of us because the Board of Longitude was established as a result.) I’ve sat next to Craig Snell, a Maritime Forecaster in the UK Met Office, while he explained how he writes a Forecast. I’ve got lost – many times – and found the unexpected as a result… Yet where better to end the project than at a celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the first official airing of the BBC Shipping Forecast? It was, I reckoned, probably as close to visiting all the sea areas in one go as it’s possible to get. (Apart from listening to the Shipping Forecast itself, that is.) Charlie Connolly who wrote the wonderful travel guide Attention All Shipping, had a one man show on board the Cutty Sark recently. As he said himself, ‘I’m one man and I’ll be making a show of myself, so it’s probably appropriate’.cutty sark morning

A state-of-the-art tea clipper from the days before steam ships, and now the nautical equivalent of a Grade I listed building, the Cutty Sark is in dry dock in Greenwich in south-east London. Greenwich has the atmosphere of an open-air maritime museum: a Grade I listed air hangs over the entire town, and the spidery masts of the Cutty Sark rise delicately above a genteel row of eye-wateringly pricey houses. It’s strange to see a boat butting up so close to buildings and cars in a city; it is a brighter, Georgian version of the Hitchcock film Marnie, in which a vast ship forms an abrupt and unsettling end to a red-bricked terrace. Time flies by here – literally, because outside the Royal Observatory nearby a long piece of brass set into the ground represents zero degrees longitude, so you can hop from east to west and back again in a trice. On a wet day, you don’t even have to change puddles.

To an audience of Shipping Forecast fans in the Cutty Sark’s tiny theatre space, Charlie Connolly’s tour began and ended in Greenwich and more than delivered on his promise of, ‘history, travel, stories, iffy jokes, a bar and an interval and everything.’ on the cutty sark(And there I am, in the aforementioned interval). Now, it’s not that I was expecting Captains Birds Eye, Pugwash and Hook to be in the front row or anything, but I did look around the audience and assume that like me, they were all armchair enthusiasts; people who love the Forecast for its poetry, but don’t depend on it for their livelihood or welfare. Since I began this project, many people have asked me who still uses the Shipping Forecast these days? Who needs it, now that all the information you could possibly want is available online? It was one of the first questions I had for Craig Snell when I pulled up a chair at his desk last July. The BBC too has been asking this question: last year it sent out a questionnaire to members of the Royal Yachting Association, the national governing body for boating, enquiring how they get their information about the weather when they’re at sea. If the answer had come back ‘duh, the internet,’ would that have meant the death knell for the Forecast and its nighttime companion music? Radio 4 controller Denis Nowlan said the survey showed – phew! – the Forecast on Radio 4 longwave continues to be a primary or secondary source of marine safety information. An informal survey the BBC Feedback programme held at the Cornish fishing port Newlyn revealed that, although younger fishermen are less likely to use it as their go-to source, it’s because the longwave broadcast isn’t at the mercy of digital signals and technology that it’s still relied upon.

That the Shipping Forecast is still relevant for those using it for marine safety is good to know, yet an incident in May this year unintentionally highlighted its enduring popularity with us landlubbers. The 5.20am broadcast on Friday May 30th failed to air because of a technical whoopsie, and listener reactions ranged from, ‘I didn’t know whether I should leave the house or not,’ to ‘but if UK submarines don’t hear it, don’t they begin a nuclear attack?’ (That Royal Navy nuclear submarines commanders are required to leap into attack mode if they don’t hear the Shipping Forecast is a long-standing urban myth. It has been roundly poo-poohed by the Navy, though methinks they doth protest too much…)

One thing that has stuck with me over the last six months, but particularly when I went to York during my visit to Sea Areas Humber and Dogger is: how do we ever really know where we’re going, despite all the preparation? The Shipping Forecast is a guide; a prediction not a certainty. As Sir Cloudsely Shovell and the crew of the Cita (among many, many others) could tell us, we are human and we can so easily be wrong. And yet, for those of us who tune in late at night because we love the language rather than need the information, it isn’t a prediction at all. Viking, Cromarty, German Bight, Fastnet, Rockall, Malin… these form a lullaby that conjures up dreamlike, inky seas. Viking invasions and U-Boats. Long-dead pirates and islands battered by storms. For us, the Shipping Forecast becomes a promise of hope, and of a new day breaking.

400px-UK_shipping_forecast_zonesThough my explorings and wanderings are over, in another way the project is beginning, because now I have the fun of playing with all this fact and trying to turn it into fiction. I’m ending The General Synopsis at Midnight by listening to today’s lunchtime broadcast. Showers are expected later today in my nearest area, Irish Sea, in case you’re wondering. Did Craig Snell write this one? Thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award I am able to picture him sitting at his desk in front of a bank of screens, painstakingly making the world at sea safer and more knowable for the rest of us. At the words Northeast Fitzroy, Sole I’m back on St Agnes on the isles of Scilly chatting to a stranger about why a man would choose to be buried standing up; with FaeroesSoutheast Iceland I’m on a boat in the ninth century determined to find a land that supposedly doesn’t exist; with Lundy, Fastnet I’m staring up at the black tower of Ballycotton lighthouse…


With many thanks to:
Professor Margaret Kelleher, Dr Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Niall McMonagle and James Ryan: the UCD Maeve Binchy Award committee.
John Gore Grimes and Captain Harry McClenahan of The Commissioners of Irish Lights.
Imelda Rogers and the UK Met Office, Exeter.
The Binchy family, and to Gordon Snell particularly for his kindness, support and enthusiasm.

Sea more / hear more:
Each of the 31 sea areas is explored in The General Synopsis at Midnight on this blog, and any interesting sources or references I came across are listed with each entry.

For other bits and bobs, I was on the Marian Finucane radio show on May 31st, and again on September 20th to talk about my stay on Fastnet.

And lastly… a piece I wrote for Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1, broadcast on November 2nd 2014.

And finally, it’s time for Sailing By

The General Synopsis At Midnight

Sea areas Fitzroy, German Bight and Faeroes: what’s in a name?

Postcard of the Battle from the scrapbook of Leading Signalman George Smith, then on board HM Destroyer Forester
In 1955 the countries bordering the North Sea decided that sea area Heligoland should henceforth be called – drum roll, please – German Bight. It made sense, they reckoned, seeing as German Bight was already the name those on its other side used for this area. And so it was done. Exit stage left for the curiously elegant Heligoland, and enter German Bight, which sounds like a nasty rash.

As Heligoland did before it, sea area German Bight runs alongside the coast of Denmark. It goes from Dan Helder right at the tippety-top of the Hook of Holland to Esbjerg on the west Jutland coast. Following its path on a map I noticed a fantastically named selection of towns and areas: Borkum, Krummhorn, Wangerland, Norderney. (Norderney would be a good name for Fermanagh, I think, if for some reason Northern Ireland decided to hitch itself to the name-changing bandwagon.) There is a German island in this area called Sylt, described by travel writer Charlie Connolly in his brilliant book Attention All Shipping as a name that sounds ‘like someone accidentally swallowing a peach stone’. It’s according to the Danish tourist board so I’ll allow some bias, but West Jutland has some of the most beautiful nature in Denmark. Okay, the website concedes with an online shrug; fair enough. It’s not all tiny waves and the pitter-patter of smooth pebbles: the dramatic coastline of this, the ‘windswept west’ is shaped by the ‘uncompromising North Sea’.

What I hadn’t realised until I started The General Synopsis At Midnight is that Heligoland is a real place, not just a) the former shipping forecast sea area and b) that Massive Attack album from a few years back. It’s two real places in fact, as it refers to two islands. If only there had been a clue in the name. Formerly both a Danish and British colony and now German, Heligoland is a small archipelago of islands in the southeastern corner of the North Sea, three hours sailing time from Germany. Sorry, the uncompromising North Sea. The islands themselves aren’t immune from name changes: Heligoland was once known as Heyligeland or ‘holy land’. Imagine the confusion that must have caused in medieval travel agents.

Considering it is merely two small islands with a small population, Heligoland has had a traumatic life. It’s been British, Danish and German (‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ was written here). It’s been abandoned, nearly destroyed and rebuilt. It was the scene of a major naval battle of WWI – the First Battle of Heligoland Bight took place on August 28th 1914 – and a major air battle early on in WWII – yes, you’ve got it, the Battle of Heligoland Bight. The image up top is a postcard of the First Battle from the scrapbook of Leading Signalman George Smith, then on board HM Destroyer Forester. During a period of uninhabitation after WWII, the islands were used for bombing practice by the British. This included ‘the Big Bang’, a 6,700 tonne explosion – speaking of Massive Attacks – in 1947. Apparently the intention wasn’t to destroy the islands, and though I’m not yet a fully qualified munitions expert, it’s hard not to believe there wouldn’t have been an ‘ah, sure what harm’ attitude had the Bang been Big enough to take Heligoland out completely. As it was, the explosion shook the core of the bigger island to a depth of several miles down and changed its shape.

Heligoland is now German again (for now), yet one of its most significant naval stories has an Irish connection thanks to Admiral Thomas McNamara Russell. Born in County Clare in 1740, his career in the British Navy included active participation in the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War. That’s a lot of war by anyone’s standards. His biggest success is said to be his taking possession of Heligoland after Denmark came into the Napoleonic War on the side of the French in 1809. The names of some of the ships under his command during what was a very long and distinguished career read like a roll call of British we’ll-show-Johnny-Foreigner attitude: The Vengeance, The Dictator, The Centurion. I’m not quite sure how his other ships the HMS Ferret and HMS Terrier fit in with this, and I like to picture the Admiral rolling up to the docks and rubbing his hands together in happy anticipation of an all-cutlasses-blaring adventure on the shiny new frigate Doomster, only to find the lads apologetically unfurling the sails on a nut-brown HMS Squirrel Nutkin instead.

Of course as name changes go, the smooth and tear-free ‘bye-bye Heligoland and hi-de-hi to German Bight’ pales into insignificance when compared with the switch from Finisterre to Fitzroy. Sea area Fitzroy’s coastline is relatively small considering its size. It touches land from Puerto de Vega in the Spanish Asturias around to a point just south of Porto in north-west Portugal. Follow Fitzroy’s invisible sea boundary straight north and up along the westerly line of the Plymouth and Lundy sea areas and you will eventually hit sand in County Wexford, at the point where our old friend Fastnet meets sea area Lundy. (Not far inland from here is a road with the curious name Lane Of Stones.)

In 2002 an international accord between the UK, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco agreed to change the name of sea area Finisterre. Its name derived from the Spanish finis terre, ‘the end of the earth’. It was confusing, the Spanish argued, seeing as they already had an area of the same name themselves, and the waters in question bordered Spain, not the UK. Their pronouncement wasn’t followed with the Spanish version of na-na-na-na-na, but I bet they were thinking it. And so the Met Office firstly had to find a new name for Finisterre, and then agree how to pronounce it (FITZ-Roy won the day, beating off stiff competition from Fitz-ROY). Apart from those optimists who saw this as a glorious opportunity to make puns along the ‘God rest her Sole’ lines, people took its renaming rather badly. The BBC website on February 2nd 2002 wrote an obituary: RIP Finisterre, which began; ‘FINISTERRE shipping forecast sea area, a familiar friend taken away from us after a lifetime of service.’ The Liverpool Daily Post newspaper launched a campaign to try to save the name. The letterboxes of The Times and Telegraph were stuffed full with middle-England outrage. A woman from Tyneside who together with her sister had between them named their children Shannon, Tyne and Bailey, complained to the BBC R4 Today programme, ‘Fitzroy sounds more like a Doberman dog than a sea area.’Galicia coast

The westernmost peninsula of mainland Europe, Cape Finisterre (that’s a little bit of its coast in the photo) is the final destination for many pilgrims on the Santiago De Compostela, the Way of Saint James. (Familiar to David Lodge fans as the route Tubby Passmore takes in Therapy when he decides to follow his former sweetheart Maureen on her walking pilgrimage.) It was the Romans who came up with its name, obviously convinced that no way could be any more terre after this bit here. Finis. Its coast is known as the Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death.

The hypnotic, evocative beauty of the word Finisterre does make its substitution a tough one, but it’s hard to argue with a decision that celebrates Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy. A skilled seafarerer who also put in a spell as Governor of New Zealand, one of Fitzroy’s many claims to fame is that aged only 23 he captained the HMS Beagle on its expedition to Tierra del Fuego and the Southern Cone. On board too was a gentleman by the name of Charles Darwin, and a young hydrographer called Beaufort. I wonder what ever happened to them? Reputed to have a terrible temper, on the five-year voyage with Darwin, Fitzroy’s nickname was ‘hot coffee’. Having retired from travelling because of ill-health, in 1854 he was appointed Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade, which thanks to his pioneering work became the Meteorological Office. Five years later, a particularly violent storm sank The Royal Charter with the loss of hundreds of lives. It was on its sixth journey from Australia to Liverpool. There’s a very moving contemporary report here, and a selection of retrieved artifacts are on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Amidst concerns about the ever-increasing business of shipping lanes, he began to develop charts that would allow weather predictions to be made. To speed matters up, he established 24 weather stations around the UK. Information was sent from these stations to London using Morse Code. Not only was it his idea to publish forecasts in daily newspapers, the very term weather forecast was his. Impoverished thanks to the cost of his research, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy died by suicide in 1865. He was only 59.Robert Fitzroy

The names of the sea areas of the Shipping Forecast are derived from – among other things – sandbanks, estuaries, islets and towns. Fitzroy is the only one named for a person. I think it was well worth the switch from Finisterre, because it’s thanks to Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy that we have a shipping forecast to listen to at all.

And that was the end of the end of the world.

A postscript that’s more to do with changes of line-up than name, but still… Two years ago today Ireland beat the Faroe Islands 4-1 in the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. Sea area Faeroes first appeared on the shipping forecast map in 1932 and has borders with sea areas Southeast Iceland, Hebrides, Bailey and Fair Isle. (You can read about my trip to sea area Fair Isle here.) A landlubber connection between Ireland and The Faroe Islands is former Republic of Ireland football manager, Brian Kerr. Between 1997 and 2005 he managed first the Republic of Ireland Under 20’s, and then our national team. He went on to manage the Faroe Islands’ team in 2009 and became so popular that his departure two years later didn’t go down at all well: then defender Alti Gregersen told RTE the squad were ‘willing to die’ for him. As the country crest suggests, these are people with strong opinions. Apart from five men who were signed to Danish or Icelandic teams, when he took over the job initially, the balance of his squad were part-time footballers. Coat of arms of the Faroe Islands

In a newspaper interview he said: “We have four carpenters, at least six full-time students – one of them had to fly to Copenhagen and back for an exam this week – two policemen, an accountant, one fella works in a sports shop, two teachers, Andreas works in a bowling alley, and he’s doing a bit of carpentry as well. Simun is full-time in Iceland, Suni works in a fish factory, I think Frodi’s a builder, Jakup is a teacher but he’s on the town council as well, he’s like a TD. That’s kind of the run of it. The pool is quite limited, there’s no one at Milan we’ve missed out on. The Granny Rule isn’t much help either, the Faroese haven’t been huge at emigration.”

Emigration. Now there’s something the Irish, in common with many of the Shipping Forecast countries, have been good at.


(Images thanks to Wikipedia).