The 16th century paved the way for the East India Company, which would become one of the most notorious organizations in history. It was a hotbed of naval exploration. Our oceans belonged to Portugal and Spain, as they blazed trails through unchartered seas. Such was their dominance they agreed to split the world in half with the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494.
Shipping Forecast and the wreck of the Royal Charter
If you are a keen sailor then you will know all about the Shipping Forecast. But do you know how it came into being? The historical details have all the hallmarks of a good story – gold, misfortune and shipwreck.
The Royal Charter was constructed in 1855 the first of a new design of steam clipper. The Royal Charter was the first iron-hulled stream clipper to carry auxiliary steam engines. These engines would be used during the passage if winds were unfavourable or weak. She was known as one of the fastest ships of her time (Liverpool to Melbourne, Australia in under 60 days) and mainly carried emigrants to the new Australian continent. During the Australian gold rush period of the 1850s, she would carry gold prospectors back and forth. She would also carry some cargo and during these times it was common for the hold to contain a large quantity of gold.
In October 1859 the Royal Charter was returning to Liverpool from Melbourne. Onboard were approximately 370 passengers (including gold miners who had made their fortune digging for gold), a crew of 112 plus other company employees. She was carrying £322,000 of gold in her cargo hold plus many of the gold prospectors returning home had gold in their money belts for safekeeping. When the Royal Charter reached Angelsey winds from the E and NE of storm force proportions started to batter the coast. The Captain, one Thomas Taylor was advised to take shelter in Holyhead but decided to carry on to Liverpool. At Point Lynas, Captain Taylor was ready to pick up the Liverpool pilot, but the pilot boat could not reach the ship. Winds were now reaching storm force 10 from a NE direction. She anchored up on the night of the 25th October but the port anchor chain could not hold her and broke along with the starboard anchor chain soon after. The engines could not make headway against the winds which were now Hurricane force 12 so she was forced towards the coast surely to be dashed against the rocks. As luck would have it she grounded on a sandbank. However, fortune was not looking kindly on the Royal Charter and in the early hours of the 26th October the rising tide lifted her off the sandbank and she was driven into shore to be smashed against the rocks. Only 39 people survived, with many of the victims said to have drowned from the weight of the gold in their pockets.
A new department had already been set up in Britain in 1859 to deal with all the weather data at sea. Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy was the Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade (the forerunner to the Meteorological Office). Fitzroy had been a career officer in the Royal Navy, he was also a meteorologist and had been the Captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s famous voyage. He had already started to collect data from ships and had arranged for barometers to be situated at each port so barometric pressures could be read before a voyage was undertaken. After the wreck of the Royal Charter, he started to design charts that would predict weather conditions, the first weather forecast. In 1961 Fitzroy introduced a storm warning system that was sent to shipping via the new telegraph system. This was the first shipping forecast and excepting war years has continued until this day in some form or another.
Today the Shipping Forecast is produced by the Meteorological Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and broadcast by the BBC on Radio 4. The Shipping Forecast is broadcast 4 times per day at the following times: 0048 (FM & LW), 0520 (FM & LW), 1201 (LW) and 1754 (FM & LW). The broadcasts are read out live and report on the sea conditions in the various sea areas around the British Isles. The sea areas are divided into 31 areas and are as follows: Viking, North Utsire, South, Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne. Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar, FitzRoy (formally Finisterre), Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes and Southeast Iceland.
Always starting with Viking and moving in a clockwise direction through the sea areas, the Shipping Forecast has become synonymous with Radio 4 and attracts a huge number of listeners, far more than would need or have to listen to it. It’s melodic, soporific rhythm seems to act as a comforting lullaby to the British listener. Once asked to describe the appeal of the Shipping Forecast, Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader, described it thus:
“To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall”.
And now the Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at 0048 today………
Image courtesy of the Met Office