History of the Shipping forecast

The UK shipping forecast has been issued uninterrupted since 1867. After 150 years it still provides a vital role for those at sea, providing gale warnings and sea area forecasts four times a day. But how did it all start?

On the 25th/26th October 1859 the British Isles was shaken by a severe storm in which the steam clipper ‘Royal Charter’ sank off Anglsey.  Of the 500 persons onboard only 29 survived. Such a large loss of life led to a call for storms to be predicted to prevent ships from sailing into bad weather.  The storm would later become known as The Royal Charter Storm.

Admiral Robert FitzRoy founded the Meteorological Office in 1854 and using data that had been collected over previous years felt that he could give warning of approaching storms.  He designed a system of day shapes and lights that would be hoisted in ports around the coast to warn people sailing past and in port of forecast wind strengths and direction.

Cautionary Day Signals

Day Shapes


Night Signals, lights in a triangle, or square



Although not originally set up to forecast the weather, the Meteorological Office was set up to understand the weather better in the hope to safeguard life and property at sea.  Self-recording anemometers were positioned in Bermuda and Nova Scotia in 1859 and along with logbooks collected from ships the hope was to increase understanding of the weather and to find any patterns.

Information was sent to the MetOffice in London and warnings were issued via Telegraph to the relevant locations, they in turn would hoist the relevant signals.

The MetOffice is credited with being the earliest forecasting system in the world, with the first forecast being given on 6th February 1861, which included storm warnings and what we now know as the shipping forecast.  After the death of FitzRoy in 1865, the forecast was stopped, however after a public outcry due to an increased loss of life Parliament was forced to restart the forecast in 1867 and it has been uninterrupted ever since.

The Shipping forecast is broadcast on VHF and BBC Radio 4 both on FM and LW four times a day, it is also available online and via NAVTEX and covers 31 sea areas around the UK.

sea area

Origin of the Sea Area Forecast Names
Viking, Forties, Dogger, Fisher, Sole and Bailey are named after sandbanks, while Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Humber, Thames and Shannon are all named after estuaries.

Wight, Lundy, Fair Isle, Faeroes, Portland, Hebrides, South East Iceland and Utsire are named after islands and German Bight is an indentation on the Northern European shoreline.  Dover and Plymouth are named after towns, Rockall and Fastnet are both named after islets and Malin is named after Malin Head, the Northern-most point of Ireland.

Biscay is named after the Bay of Biscay, and Trafalgar after Cape Trafalgar and finally FitzRoy is named after Robert FitzRoy, the first professional weatherman and the founder of the Met Office.

As well as providing a vital weather forecasting service for thousands of people, the shipping forecast has also become a cultural icon, with may tuning in to listen to the rhythmic and measured pace of the broadcast.

The shipping forecast terminology is taught throughout all RYA practical and theory courses.  If you would be interested in learning more please contact us to sign up to one of our theory courses taking place in Central London.  [email protected] 020 7002 7676

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