‘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

Counting down to Midnight

Counting down to The General Synopsis at Midnight…

I stared yet again at my map of the 31 Sea Areas (see Map here). From Iceland and Norway down as far as the coast of Spain, the sea seemed to stretch on forever. And I remembered a many-years-ago edition of Mastermind and the four contestants with their four completely different specialised subjects. I couldn’t recall three of them. (The Moomin books of Tove Jansson perhaps, or something equally learnable; The Walls of Limerick, the Fjords of Killary.) The fourth person had ‘agriculture’ as their specialised subject. I imagined him lowering himself slowly down into Magnus Magnusson’s famous black chair and thinking, uh oh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I’ve had what I’ve come to think of as my agriculture moments since I began to properly plan my exploration of the 31 Sea Areas of the Shipping Forecast. Too much sea! Too much land! Too many areas! But now that I’m counting down, and getting ready to visit to the Met Office in Exeter to see how the Forecast is prepared, I find that I’m getting excited all over again. Agriculture? A doddle.

The Shipping Forecast is broadcast four times a day on BBC Radio 4: 0048, 0535, 1201 and 1754. An essential tool for those at sea, it has become much more. Recently I met Captain Harry McClenahan of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, who talked about the power it has to transcend navigation. ‘At night, in a strange ocean you hear it,’ he said, ‘and it gives you a sense of security, and family.’ The music that precedes the late night broadcast is Sailing By, composed by Ronald Binge in 1963. Many listeners regard this waltz as a soothing lullaby, yet for Harry it doesn’t depict calm weather conditions, but rather is all about movement. ‘It is a painting of the sea,’ he said. Already I owe both Harry McClenahan and John Gore Grimes of the CIL a big thank-you for their help and advice. (For Shipping Forecast novices, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnQ2Lk20n3U is the perfect introduction. Laurie McMillan reads the late Forecast on radio and tv as part of BBC’s Arena night in 1993.). I was on the Marian Finucane radio show on May 31st to discuss the project and again on September 20th with an update about my overnight stay on Fastnet Lighthouse.

For my starting point, I have taken one of the four Shipping Forecasts broadcast on Wednesday May 28th 2014, which was Maeve Binchy’s birthday and the day this travel bursary was announced. (The full Forecast is included at the end of this post). In the photo I’m with her husband, Gordon Snell. With Gordon Snell In each Forecast, the Sea Areas are grouped by the prevailing/anticipated weather conditions, and in the Forecast broadcast at 0535 on May 28th, the groupings went like this:

Viking, North Utsire, Northern South Utsire
Southern South Utsire
North-East Forties
South-West Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger
Fisher
German Bight, Humber
Thames
Dover
Wight, Portland, Plymouth
Biscay
Fitzroy
Sole
Lundy
Fastnet
Irish Sea
Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, South-East Iceland

(Those keen listeners among you will have noticed that Trafalgar isn’t on the list. That’s because it only ever features in the 0048 bulletin. I’m sure our paths will cross at some stage somehow…)

In The General Synopsis at Midnight, I’m going to explore the areas as dictated by the prevailing weather conditions on Maeve Binchy’s birthday. Those areas I can’t literally dip a toe into, I will explore in other ways such as through folklore, culture or a shared history.  John Gore Grimes, who is on the Board of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, was one of the first people I met while planning this project. As he rightly pointed out, the challenge of those Sea Areas that don’t touch land is to find what does distinguish them from each other – apart from the weather conditions. And he is a man who knows his weather: he has made 14 successful voyages to the Arctic, and seven attempts to reach Franz Josef Land (every single one of which was defeated by sea ice). He says that the weather in Bailey and South East Iceland can be ‘absolutely terrifying’, while Shannon and Rockall are ‘particularly lively.’ He described Biscay – with what I suspect is typical aplomb – as ‘the gathering place for a gale tea party.’

I am kicking off The General Synopsis at Midnight with a visit to the Met Office HQ in Exeter and a trip the Isles of Scilly. Just north-east of the Isles of Scilly is the common nodal point of Areas Sole, Lundy and Fastnet.

Seas, shipwrecks and seals beckon….

Shipping Forecast broadcast on Maeve Binchy’s birthday:

AND NOW THE SHIPPING FORECAST ISSUED BY THE MET OFFICE, ON BEHALF OF THE MARITIME AND COASTGUARD AGENCY, AT 0505 ON WEDNESDAY 28TH MAY 2014.

THERE ARE WARNINGS OF GALES IN SOUTH UTSIRE, FISHER AND GERMAN BIGHT. THE GENERAL SYNOPSIS AT MIDNIGHT: LOW SOLE 1,014 LOSING ITS IDENTITY. NEW LOW EXPECTED SOUTHERN ENGLAND 1,011 BY MIDNIGHT TONIGHT. THE AREA FORECASTS FOR THE NEXT 24 HOURS:

VIKING, NORTH UTSIRE, NORTHERN SOUTH UTSIRE: VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. FOG PATCHES LATER. MODERATE OR GOOD. OCCASIONALLY VERY POOR LATER.
SOUTHERN SOUTH UTSIRE: EASTERLY FIVE TO SEVEN. OCCASIONALLY GALE EIGHT AT FIRST IN EAST, BACKING NORTH-EASTERLY FOUR LATER. FAIR. GOOD.
NORTH-EAST FORTIES: EASTERLY FIVE TO SEVEN, BACKING NORTH-EASTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. FAIR. GOOD.
SOUTH-WEST FORTIES, CROMARTY, FORTH, TYNE, DOGGER: EASTERLY OR NORTH-EASTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. OCCASIONALLY SIX EXCEPT IN CROMARTY AND FORTH. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
FISHER: EASTERLY OR NORTH-EASTERLY FIVE TO SEVEN. OCCASIONALLY GALE EIGHT AT FIRST IN EAST. FAIR. GOOD.
GERMAN BIGHT, HUMBER: EAST OR NORTH-EAST FIVE TO SEVEN. OCCASIONALLY GALE EIGHT AT FIRST IN GERMAN BIGHT. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR. THAMES: CYCLONIC BECOMING EASTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. OCCASIONALLY SIX LATER IN NORTH. RAIN OR SHOWERS. FOG PATCHES AT FIRST. MODERATE. OCCASIONALLY VERY POOR AT FIRST.
DOVER: WEST BACKING SOUTH-WEST THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE AT FIRST. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
WIGHT, PORTLAND, PLYMOUTH: VARIABLE THREE IN SOUTH-WEST PLYMOUTH OTHERWISE WESTERLY OR NORTH-WESTERLY FOUR OR FIVE. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
BISCAY: VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY WESTERLY FIVE IN NORTH EAST. RAIN OR THUNDERY SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
FITZROY: VARIABLE MAINLY NORTH-WESTERLY THREE OR FOUR, INCREASING FIVE AT TIMES. RAIN OR THUNDERY SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
SOLE: CYCLONIC BECOMING VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE AT FIRST. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
LUNDY: NORTH OR NORTH-WEST FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE IN BRISTOL CHANNEL. RAIN OR SHOWERS. MODERATE OR GOOD.
FASTNET: VARIABLE THREE OR FOUR. MAINLY FAIR. MODERATE OR GOOD.
IRISH SEA: NORTH OR NORTH-EAST FOUR OR FIVE. OCCASIONALLY SIX LATER. RAIN OR SHOWERS. GOOD. OCCASIONALLY POOR.
SHANNON, ROCKALL, MALIN, HEBRIDES, BAILEY, FAIR ISLE, FAEROES, SOUTH-EAST ICELAND: VARIABLE MAINLY EASTERLY THREE OR FOUR. OCCASIONALLY FIVE EXCEPT IN BAILEY. SHOWERS. FOG PATCHES. MODERATE OR GOOD. OCCASIONALLY VERY POOR.