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Poetic Weather, Whether It's Nice or Not

Missing about in boats is all very fine - so long as it's on a municipal pond.

But ocean-going (I suspect) is not my scene, whatever Dr. Johnson said. And what he said was: "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea."

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Not me. The most I've done in this line is cross the English Channel. Since then, I have flown over it. (Or today there is always the Chunnel.)

I am an unashamed landlubber. Oh, I read Captain Hornblower books as a boy. I admit the language of the sea is rather stimulating. But in truth, I don't know port from aft or stern from bow. And the following from Jack London's novel "The Sea Wolf" is as incomprehensible to me as ancient Egyptian:

The sail emptied and the gaff swung amidships. The halyards slackened.... Then the gaff swung to the side with an abrupt swiftness, the great sail boomed like a cannon, and the three rows of reef-points slatted against the canvas like a volley of rifles.

Great stuff! But I am more the type who visits the local fishmonger without the slightest awareness that men have taken great risks to make available the haddock and halibut, mullet and mackerel, herring, turbot, and sole so easily slapped down on the cool slab, awaiting someone's dinner. The retrieval of silver-slippery fish from the ocean's maelstrom is not something to which I give a second thought as I tuck into my fish and chips. I mean, fishing is just a job like any other, isn't it?

Well, no, it is not, particularly when there is "gale force 8 backing easterly" or worse. Librarianship is far less boisterous as professions go, and even traffic police do not get half as wet. Most of us live very weatherproof lives, and even on the sea-girt island where I reside, one can easily forget the urgent resurgencies of the North Sea or the rolling devastations of the Atlantic.

Even the occasional gull escaping inland hardly stirs us. We are as Dickinsonian as Emily. "I never saw a moor" she wrote, "I never saw a sea;/ Yet I know how the heather looks,/ And what a wave must be." Oh yes?

There is one thing in Britain, however, that might, if we let it, keep reminding us inlanders that those who go down to the sea in ships court hazard and drama beyond our wildest nightmares. This is the Shipping Forecast.

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It is broadcast four times in every 24 hours on BBC Radio 4, lasting a mere five minutes. Sometimes there are gale warnings as a surprise extra. But the Shipping Forecasts proper are exactly predictable and they punctuate the day with a monastic regularity. Though they vary in details, they have a similar sound and rhythm every time that is almost like a litany. More than a few people have pointed out how strangely reassuring they find this - partly because they haven't the faintest idea what any of it means.

Special appeal lies in the glorious, puzzling names of the "sea areas" and the "coastal stations" featured, pronounced with clipped English diction: " ...Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire: variable 3 becoming southerly 4 or 5 later, rain at times, moderate or good.

"Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne: variable 3 becoming southerly 4 or 5, rain later, moderate or good.

"Dogger: northwesterly backing southwesterly 4 or 5, occasional rain or drizzle, moderate or good.

"German Bight: cyclonic becoming southwesterly 4 or 5, occasional rain moderate with fog patches...."

And so it goes, very succinct, very arcane. But very familiar.

One feels that they are old friends, German "bite" and Dogger, so canine-sounding. And then there are Biscay, Trafalgar, and Finisterre, redolent of ancient battles or suggestive of briny ship's biscuits. Sole, Lundy, and Fastnet are surely fishy. Then Shannon, Rockall, Malin, and Hebrides, not to mention Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes and Southeast Iceland, which, as they come over the air, staccato yet tranquil, take one imaginatively from sea-creased fisherwives knitting thick sweaters to the brutish sagas of primeval Northern peoples.

I am informed by friends in Massachusetts that they have similar forecasts - though, while funding lasts, theirs go on all day and include far more extensive information (water temperatures and wave heights, for instance) than the curt British forecasts, virtually in code. Yet these American forecasts have a similar poetry to them. It is as if the more plainly informative and factual they are, the more stirring they become.

Like the British forecasts - with reports from places with names like Tiree, Butt of Lewis, Channel Light Vessel Automatic, and Ronaldsway - they have information to impart from coastal stations. One of my friends' favorites is: "Isle of Shoals: not reporting."

This sounds to me so ominous as to be cause for grave concern. Compared with this, the matter-of-fact British reports of wind "veering" or "backing" or of barometric pressure "falling slowly" or "falling more slowly," are comfortable and settling. And the way our forecasters often end each specific report with the word "good" only confirms the feeling that if the shipping forecast is here again, then all's right with the world (even if it actually signifies mayhem at sea).

But when Isle of Shoals is "not reporting," is Armageddon looming? Has a ship run aground on it? Did it erupt? Is anyone concerned?

Definitely, it should be reporting. Reporting is what it is there for. Reporting is what it does best.

Then why - oh, why - is Isle of Shoals not reporting?

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