The shipping forecast is a critical tool for sailors, providing them with up-to-date weather information so they can navigate safely through treacherous seas. It can still be heard on the radio today worldwide.

The forecast has a long history, dating back to the mid-19th century when early forms of weather forecasting began to emerge.

The History of the Shipping Forecast

In 1860, the British Board of Trade set up a weather reporting system for shipping. This included daily reports of wind, temperature, and barometric pressure. This system allowed sailors to receive important weather information before they set sail and to adjust their plans accordingly.

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However, it wasn’t until 1921 that the first shipping forecast was broadcast on the BBC. It providing detailed weather information for different regions around the British Isles.

Today, the shipping forecast is broadcast by the UK’s Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The forecast covers the waters around the British Isles and provides information on wind speed and direction, visibility, sea state, and weather conditions. The forecast is divided into different regions, each with its own unique set of conditions.

The Importance of the Shipping Forecast for Sailors

The shipping forecast is an essential tool for sailors, allowing them to plan their journeys and avoid dangerous weather conditions. In addition to the forecast, sailors can also use modern technology. Radar and GPS are the most common to navigate through stormy waters.

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Despite these advances, sailing remains a dangerous profession, and sailors have faced many terrifying storms at sea throughout history. The shipping forecast helps sailors to make informed decisions about when to set sail and when to take shelter. It also provides vital information about the direction and strength of winds. Sailors can then adjust their course to avoid dangerous waves and currents.

Map of sea and coastal weather stations heard in the UK Shipping Forecast.

Weather can have a significant impact on maritime navigation, and sailors must be prepared for a wide range of conditions. Strong winds, heavy rain, and low visibility can all make navigation challenging and dangerous. In addition to these hazards, sailors must also be aware of tides, currents, and shoals that can cause ships to run aground.

Traditional Weather Forecasting

Before the advent of modern technology, sailors relied on a variety of methods to predict the weather. One of the most important of these methods was observing the natural world around them. They would look at the behaviour of birds, clouds, and ocean currents.


For example, birds can often provide valuable information about weather patterns. Seabirds, for instance, tend to fly closer to shore when a storm is approaching. Land birds however will often seek shelter in the trees. Similarly, the behaviour of clouds can also indicate changes in weather, such as the development of storm clouds or the approach of a cold front.


Sailors also relied on barometers, which measure changes in atmospheric pressure, to predict weather patterns. By monitoring changes in barometric pressure, sailors could anticipate changes in the weather, such as the approach of a storm.

The Stars:

Another important tool for sailors was the use of celestial navigation. This would involve using the positions of stars and other celestial bodies to determine a ship’s location and heading. By studying the positions of stars and the movement of the planets, sailors could make educated guesses about upcoming weather patterns and adjust their course accordingly.

The combination of the stars and a sextant have been used by sailors for centuries.

Sailors also kept track of historical weather patterns and local weather lore, which were often passed down from one generation of sailors to the next. For example, sailors might have known that certain types of clouds were associated with specific types of weather, or that a certain wind direction was likely to bring rain or fair weather.

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While these methods were not always accurate, they provided sailors with a way to anticipate changes in the weather and adjust their sailing plans accordingly. Today, modern technology has made weather forecasting much more accurate, but the knowledge and skills of traditional weather forecasting are still an important part of sailing culture.

These traditional methods of weather prediction were often unreliable, and sailors would often be caught off guard by sudden storms and changing weather conditions. However, sailors were resourceful and would use their knowledge of the sea to navigate through challenging weather.

Coping With Storms at Sea

Sailors have been facing storms and rough weather for centuries. Preparing for a storm was and still is a crucial part of a sailor’s job. Here are some ways that sailors would prepare for storms in the past and how modern sailors prepare for storms today:

Reefing the sails:

When a storm was approaching, sailors would reduce the amount of sail they had up. This would be done by “reefing” the sails, which involves rolling up or folding part of the sail so that it is smaller. This would make the ship more stable in strong winds and reduce the risk of capsizing.

Securing the ship:

Sailors would also need to secure any loose items on deck that could become dangerous projectiles in strong winds. This would include items such as barrels, ropes, and tools. Additionally, sailors would need to ensure that all hatches were secured to prevent water from entering the ship.

Taking bearings:

When a storm was approaching, sailors would need to take bearings and determine the ship’s position. This would allow them to make any necessary adjustments to the ship’s course to avoid the worst of the storm.

Bailing water:

In the event that water did enter the ship, sailors would need to bail it out. This was typically done using a bucket or a hand pump. Nowadays bailing is done automatically with electric pumps.

Using storm anchors:

In severe storms, sailors would often need to use storm anchors to keep the ship from drifting. These anchors were larger and heavier than the anchors used in normal conditions and were designed to hold the ship in place even in the strongest of winds.

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Today, modern sailors have access to a wide range of technology to help them prepare for storms. This includes advanced weather forecasting tools, such as radar and satellite imagery, which can provide sailors with detailed information about the storm’s strength, direction, and duration.

An18th-century frigate with reef bands across the sails. This made ‘reefing’ quicker and easier to do in the event of a storm.

Additionally, modern ships are equipped with advanced navigation systems, including GPS and electronic charts, which can help sailors plot a course to avoid the worst of the storm.

Despite these advances, however, sailors must still be prepared to face the dangers of the sea. Storms can be unpredictable, and even the most advanced technology can’t always predict their behaviour with 100% accuracy.

As a result, sailors must rely on their skills, experience, and knowledge of the sea to stay safe in rough weather.

Famous Sandbanks, Reefs, and Shoals

Throughout history, many ships have been lost to sandbanks, reefs, and shoals. These underwater hazards are often difficult to navigate and can cause ships to run aground, resulting in damage or sinking.

One of the most famous sandbanks is the Goodwin Sands, a dangerous area off the coast of Kent, England. The Goodwin Sands have claimed many ships throughout history, including the HMS Stirling Castle in 1703, which resulted in the loss of over 1,000 lives.

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The Goodwin Sands are still a hazard for modern sailors, and many ships must navigate carefully to avoid running aground.

The SS Mahratta on the Goodwin Sands in 1909. This was one of hundreds of ships whose fate ended there.

Another famous reef is the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. This massive reef system stretches over 2,300 kilometres and is home to a diverse array of marine life. However, the Great Barrier Reef is also a dangerous area for ships, with many reefs and shoals that can cause damage or sinking.

In addition to these hazards, sailors must also be aware of icebergs, which can pose a significant threat to ships in colder waters. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is a famous example of a ship that was lost due to an iceberg collision.

Mans Love of The Sea

In conclusion, the shipping forecast is a critical tool for sailors, providing them with important weather information so they can navigate safely through treacherous seas. The forecast has a long history, dating back to the mid-19th century, and has evolved over time to become a vital part of maritime safety.

A Portuguese shipping chart form 1571. The detail has got better but the principial is the same.

Despite modern technology and advances in weather forecasting, sailing remains a dangerous profession, and sailors must be prepared for a wide range of weather conditions. By understanding the impact of weather on maritime navigation and using the shipping forecast to plan their journeys, sailors can increase their chances of reaching their destination safely.

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Finally, the history of the shipping forecast also highlights the importance of traditional skills and knowledge, which have been passed down through generations of sailors. By combining modern technology with traditional methods, sailors can navigate through the most challenging weather conditions.