This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Shipping Forecast. Sailor Carolyn Brown reads it out. Here she reveals why the radio studio can be an area of high pressure
I used to be able to boast that I was the only Yachtmaster to read the shipping forecast. Then my colleague David Miles qualified too, so now I lay claim to being the only female Yachtmaster reading it. I like to think it gives me a degree of empathy that my non-sailing colleagues lack. I have huddled in a cockpit by torchlight scribbling the forecast down on a damp met pad with a not very sharp pencil. Even so, sailor friends say I sound much too smug relating the news that all hell is about to break loose and I should have someone throwing buckets of water over me in the studio while I am reading.
All hell broke out in the studio recently when for the first time in its 90-year history, the forecast failed to appear without any explanation. Normally if there is a problem with the transmission, as an announcer we make an immediate apology and promise that the forecast will be broadcast as soon as possible.
The latest catastrophe was caused, quite simply, by human error. A very experienced member of staff on duty that morning failed to push the button that put the Radio 4 studio into transmission mode. The shipping forecast and an entire fifteen- minute news briefing was performed to an audience of two. The person responsible was mortified, but no one is at their best in the long watches of the night.
The forecast was eventually broadcast when the network was back on air twenty- five minutes later, after a land-locked technician asked why we were still transmitting the World Service.
On too many occasions I have staggered bleary-eyed at some unearthly hour in the morning to discover the roll of telex paper had run out and the forecast had foundered somewhere off the Isles of Scilly with a big red stain running through the last couple of feet of the roll. The paper was so thin and curly that we had to rip it into sections and pin it onto sheets of cardboard before we read it, or the rustling noise would all but drown out the information we were trying to impart.
Then came fax machines but these could and frequently did jam. You can’t have a fax machine churning out paper in the studio: it would also be too noisy, so one morning my studio manager was dashing down the corridor to the fax machine in the Radio Two studio and bringing me the forecast page by page. I read very slowly so as not to run out of coastal stations before he got back with the next instalment.
Timings are critical. For some bulletins we have exactly three minutes to fit everything in, whether there is a high pressure stationary over the British Isles or a whole host of depressions and fronts jostling in the upper atmosphere. Although the computer technology can help with timings – counting three words a second, the average speed for reading scripts on the air – it sadly can’t tell the difference between the word ‘rain’ and a pressure reading of 1012, which is a total of four words when said out loud.
The forecast is sometimes delayed on long wave to accommodate cricket commentaries (we have to wait until the end of the next over), but it cuts both ways – in 2011 there was an outcry among cricket fans who missed the final over of England’s famous Ashes victory when the long-wave transmitter was programmed to switch away for the shipping forecast.
I am always amazed at the reaction elicited from non-sailors by the forecast. They go all misty eyed at the mention of the shipping forecast and start softly humming Sailing By. I think it’s because subconsciously us Brits can never forget we are an island nation and it is one of the few things that still reminds us of that.
But spare a thought for the poor presenters: sleep-deprived, technology- dependent and at the mercy of the elements. You sailors have a whole lot in common with them.
Carolyn, 59, has been an announcer at BBC Radio 4 since 1991. She has at various times been the owner of the oldest glassfibre yacht still afloat, Nohoh a 24ft Glascade, a Drascombe Lugger and part owner of a Victory 40 ketch but has now discovered it is ‘more cost-effective to sail other people’s boats’. A Yachtmaster, she has cruised off the South West coast of the UK, the Channel Islands, France, Spain and in Greece.