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 Fastnet and Rockall: Living on the edge

to the lighthouseAppendix I of C.W. Scott’s 1906 History of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouses – class, please make a note of that plural ‘s’, we’ll be coming back to it later – is entitled ‘Working Days And Number of Stones Set Each Day’. This meticulous list begins on June 9th 1899 (the first entry is Stones 2, Courses, 1 of, in case you’re wondering) and ends four years later, when the recorded total is of 89 Courses consisting of 2,074 stones. Including the infill and the foundations and the space between the tower and the rock, the total completed weight of Fastnet Lighthouse was 4,633 tonnes.

Now this should be reassuring. Fastnet is big. It’s solid. It’s taken battering after battering for far longer than I’ve been alive. And yet shortly after I arrive for my overnight stay I find myself clutching the handrail on the observation deck just that bit tighter as Ronnie O’Driscoll, a man with over 40 years service as a lighthouse keeper behind him, mentions the green water that has been known to pour in through the windows. ‘But we’re 160 feet up!’ I hear myself squeak. 50mph Atlantic waves have been known to go right over the dome, and after a bad storm the tower can shake and sway for up to ten hours. Back inside the kitchen which is the entirety of floor 7 (the lantern itself occupies floors 8 and 9) I hear it said that after particularly high seas fish have been found in the gutters above. As it is my ears give a light pop every time someone opens the kitchen door to go for a stroll around the deck that wraps around the building. Even when the heavy iron door is shut there is a constant sound from outside. During my first half-hour on Fastnet I had assumed this roar was coming from a boat’s engine somewhere nearby. Nope. It’s the sea, pounding away.underneath the lighton the edge

Fastnet Lighthouse may be the most beautiful lighthouse in this area, but it isn’t the first. That was built on Cape Clear, 6.5km away. Cape Clear lighthouse had a significant flaw, which unfortunately became only too-apparent in December 1847 when American packet ship the Stephen Whitney ran agound: the lantern was too high above sea level, which meant that its beam became easily encased in fog. Only 19 of the 110 people on board the Stephen Whitney that night survived, and an account of the sinking written days later by its Chief Mate told of those who, ‘bruised and naked without shoe or stocking jacket or waistcoat scrambled up the rock which overhung the sea to the height of nearly 60 feet and after searching about for some time arrived at two miserable huts the only human tenement on the island.’

The Commissioners of Irish Lights decided to build on the compact Fastnet islet instead. And this brings us to the reason for C.W. Scott’s additional letter ‘s’. Firstly, a new cast-iron tower and small dwelling for the keeper (I’ve been in it, and believe me, it’s small. Also noisy and stuffy) was built, and began operations in 1854. However, some years later during a storm a similarly constructed lighthouse at Bantry Bay broke in two. The iron snapped clean off, as though it had no more strength to it than a souvenir stick of rock. Given that the beam from the existing tower wasn’t strong enough anyway, the Commissioners of Irish Lights decided third time just had to be lucky. A new tower! That’s what they needed, they reckoned. None of your messing around with repairs. A new lighthouse, one that would be as strong as it could be, complete with a lantern as powerful as the technology of the time was possible to create.

It was to be the tallest and the widest lighthouse to be found anywhere in Ireland or Britain. Originally powered by paraffin, and now electric, the lamp is 180ft above sea level and can be seen for a 26-mile range. It is made from six tonnes of glass in a four-sided structure that revolves in a bath of mercury. On the inside of this structure, its shape is that of a beehive. A very disconcerting optical illusion occurs on the inside of this beehive. Outside it, it is obvious that the spinning sheets of glass are rotating, but if you duck inside, it appears as though you are the one suddenly twirling about, and the glass itself has come to a swift stop. In the photograph, I am at the halfway point of the light. Beside me are six tonnes of twirling glass. inside the light(Yep, that’s me: the dark, quivering blur to the right).

Fastnet is known as Ireland’s teardrop. Not because of the eye-watering breeze out here on the observation deck apparently, but rather because it was the last part of Ireland to be seen by C19th emigrants sailing to North America. The water far below me is hypnotic. White rushes against pale blue, shoving pale blue against dark blue. The repetitive surge shaped like a white arrowhead that pushes through the dark and spreads itself out and around has me singing the Dad’s Army theme tune. Never before have I experienced a life that is so purely, so entirely vertical. There is no horizontality to the world out here; nowhere to go for a stroll that isn’t up or down steps, or that wouldn’t be soon ended by a sheer drop. It’s a very odd thought, and one I can’t shake off as I lie in my curved bunk in the dark. Every lighthouse has a unique timing to its flash, known as its ‘character’: Fastnet’s is every five seconds. I lie there, watching the light signaling to the world beyond the tiny circular bedroom, telling its story of routine, of safety. Yet there must have been many, many nights when being on the lighthouse must have felt impossibly unsafe to the men whose job it was to keep the lantern turning. It must have taken a very particular personality to thrive in such a life, one that was so isolated yet lived in such close proximity with others. I think there is more to ‘character’ in relation to Fastnet than just the arbitrary system of signals assigned to its flash. Every lighthouse has a personality, they are all different, all unique, even though their function is the same: to warn, to serve, to protect.

Of course the very mention of the name Fastnet understandably reminds many people of the disaster in 1979. 306 yachts with 3,000 competitors on board set sail from Cowes on a route that would take them around Fastnet and on to Plymouth. Only 86 boats finished the race. An unexpectedly severe storm blew up and went through the race like a carving knife. Waves the size of buildings hit small yachts and sent them spinning around, powerless. The Assistant Keeper on Fastnet at the time was Gerald Butler, who wrote about the race and its rescue operation, which was the largest-ever in peacetime, in his memoir The Lightkeeper. A survivor recalled his boat being pitch-poled; a form of cartwheel that happens when the bow ploughs into a wave in front just as the back is lifted by another wave.

In the morning according to the Shipping Forecast the conditions are ‘easterly or north easterly four or five, occasionally six’. Fastnet is the most southerly point of Ireland, 13km from the Cork coast. The lumpy blur in the distance in the photo of the helipad they so-thoughtfully monogrammed in my honour is its nearest neighbour, Cape Clear.monogrammed landing Years ago, children on Cape Clear were taught to include the Fastnet keepers in their nightly prayers. I am on the observation deck again, trying to pick out the edges of Cape Clear through the mist. I’m casually trying to zip up the jacket billowing around me like a prototype hot air balloon without taking my hands off the rail. What I’m really doing is silently designing a forecasting system of my own; one in which the strength of the wind – described back in the kitchen as ‘getting a bit fresh’ – can be determined by whiteness of my knuckles clutching the handrail.

landings then and nowBut back to C.W. Scott and his appendices. I wonder what was happening on July 11th 1901, when only two stones were laid. Yet a few weeks later on August 22nd a whopping 25 stones of 45 courses were sorted in a day. Scott, in common with all biographers of the Fastnet, devotes a lot of time to James Kavanagh, the foreman of the site from 1896 to June 1903. He rarely left the place, deciding instead to sleep each night in a damp hole in the rock near their boat’s landing strip (carved out specially, don’t you know). Up at five every morning, he set every one of the 2,074 stones himself, and when the tower was complete its vertical variation from the original plans drawn up by engineer William Douglass was a mere 60mm. Unfortunately for James Kavanagh, the best part of a decade spent sleeping outside on a bed of rock ruined his health and he never saw the lamps lit. erecting the lantern august 1903By the time this photo (which I came across in C.W. Scott’s book) of the construction of the lantern was taken in August 1903, he was dead.

The last full-time keeper left here in 1989 and the lighthouse was automated and converted to unwatched. A bolt had to be put on the door from the outside, because one had never been needed before. This beautiful building had never been empty. And it truly is beautiful. From the perfect edges of the granite slabs that face no audience other than the waves, right down to the intricate mosaic on the kitchen floor, this building is a work of art. Yet it is a working work of art, and one that continues to provide a necessary service. From paraffin to electricity to solar power, lighthouses too must sway with the times. They must continue to create a safe passage for those at sea. George Bernard Shaw once commented, ‘I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.’ I think that Neilly O’Reilly, one of the team who maintains the Fastnet, expressed this far better when, as we stood on the observation deck tracing the curves of Kavanagh’s perfectly-cut stone above our heads, he told me; ‘They had to make them functional, but they didn’t have to make them so beautiful.’with CIL


With a very, very big thank you for my stay on Fastnet to: John Gore Grimes, Donie Holland, Captain Harry McClenahan, Ronnie O’Driscoll (on my right), Neilly O’Reilly (on my left) and Barry Phelan, all of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

A sea area footnote: is there life on Rockall?

Fastnet is a tidy enough area, but it’s New York compared to Rockall, an uninhabited granite islet that has given its name to a sea area. 430km north-west of Ireland, it measures 110ft in diameter which I guess is about as high as the ground floor of the Fastnet. The nearest inhabited place is a small island called North Uist in sea area Hebrides, a place known for its ‘drowned landscape’ of peat bogs and lochans. Rockall looks lonely and terrifying and dangerous but… Yep, you got it. People have camped out there. Plenty of ‘em. The most recent resident was Edinburgh man Nick Hancock, whose record-breaking 45-day endurance stay earlier this year raised funds for the UK Help For Heroes campaign. Incredible.

Want to sea more?

You can hear me telling Marian Finucane about my trip to Fastnet on September 20th here.
Various tours around the rock by boat are now available, such as this one:
Commissioners of Irish Lights:
The Lightkeeper: A Memoir by Gerald Butler with Patricia Ahern:

The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project.