Sea Areas of the Shipping Forecast - Part 1

Herring boats running into Lowestoft

The hows, whys and wheres behind the names

Part 1. The Eastern Area – Viking to Thames

"Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight" – such evocative sounds, but where do they come from and why?

A bit of history

Gale warnings for the British Isles were first broadcast to ships approaching these shores as far back as 1911 but with the outbreak of war in 1914 they ceased and the service was not resumed until 1921.

In June of that year a specially prepared weather bulletin for shipping was broadcast twice daily from the wireless transmission station at Poldhu in Cornwall.

Then from 1st January 1942 a weather bulletin called Weather Shipping was broadcast twice daily from the Air Ministry Station GFA in London. The Sea Areas and Stations originally used were subdivided into districts named after islands, rivers or banks within them. (The same principle is still used) These names identify themselves immediately to the mariner.

Sea Areas were amended in 1932 but bulletins ceased at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. They were resumed in 1945 in much the same form but by 1948 the need was felt for forecasts to cover a wider area and considerable extensions were agreed upon. Since then certain names have been changed and areas subdivided until today we have the present form known and loved by all those who travel at sea. Although areas are frequently grouped together for the forecast they always appear in the same order.

The areas – where are they and why are they so named?

Viking – an area covering the open sea between Norway and the Shetland Islands. It originally included N & S Utsire. The word comes from old Norse vikingr used to refer to Norse explorers, warriors and pirates from the late 8th to mid 11th century. Viking is actually the name of a sandbank in the North Sea. This area is stormy, heavily tidal and also shallow.

North Utsire and South Utsire – Utsire is a tiny, windy island of 4 square miles off the west coast of Norway with a population of approximately 240. The origin of the name is uncertain but may mean “strong stream”. It is located in the North Sea and is an area where the weather is extremely harsh. However it seems to suit the birdlife, which is very rich, there being over three hundred species of birds on it, more species than the total population. It does boast a local football team which apparently used to win most of their matches due to the sea-sickness of the visiting teams. After complaints from the defeated teams, the league pronounced that Utsire should play all its fixtures on the mainland resulting in hardly any wins.

Forties  - an area in the North Sea named after a sandbank and also an area called the “Long Forties” which is fairly consistently 40 fathoms deep (73m). The area is the home to much of the North Sea’s oil and gas fields and it is approximately 100 miles from Aberdeen. Originally the area was larger but in 1955 the northern half was named Viking. It has no land boundaries at all.

Cromarty – is named after both a river estuary and a place, Cromarty, in the Burgh of Ross and Cromarty in the North Eastern tip of Scotland. The name originates from the Gaelic words crom (crooked) and bati (bay), or from ard (height). So it means either Crooked Bay or The Bend Between The Heights, referring to the high rocks or Sutors that guard the entrance to the Firth. They are said to be the sleeping forms of two giant shoemakers who protected the harbour from Vikings and pirates in past centuries. Now the estuary is home to more oil platforms.

Forth – named after a river estuary the Firth of Forth. The name originated from Gaelic and means Black River. The river itself is 29 miles long and is the major river draining the eastern part of Central Scotland. Seafarers will be familiar with the famous Bell Rock lighthouse, the oldest working lighthouse in the world and the legend of the Inchcape Rock. Fear of striking the rock was sometimes so great that vessels were wrecked on neighbouring shores while trying to avoid it.

Tyne - named after the river estuary of the River Tyne. Little is known about the origins of the name although it is thought that tin was a word meaning river in the local Celtic language. The river is a confluence of the North and the South Tyne which converge near Hexham in Northumberland. Included in the area is the town of Whitby in Yorkshire which was home to Captain Cook for three years. It was here that he studied and learned from the waters of the east coast how to charter through unknown seas.

Dogger – a sandbank in the North Sea. It is about 160 miles long and 60 miles wide and is approximately 20m shallower than the surrounding area. It is a productive fishing ground for cod and has been the site of several naval battles. The most bizarre of these was “The Dogger Bank Incident” of 1904 when the Russian Baltic fleet, instructed by the Tsar to sail for Japan and participate in the Russo-Japanese War, mistook a Swedish trawler for a Japanese ship and a fleet of British trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats. They opened fire and inflicted carnage on the fishing boats, not once wondering why they were not retaliating. The incident caused outrage and brought Britain and Russia to the brink of war. The tragedy was commemorated by a statue which stands in Hull. The area used to be larger but was subdivided, the north eastern half being renamed Fisher.

Fisher – named after a sandbank off the west coast of Denmark. It has a landfall on the west coast of Denmark which is part of Jutland and includes some of the area called Skagerrak. The Battle of Jutland in World War 1 was one of the largest naval battles in history. The British Royal Navy attacked the German Navy leading to heavy casualties on both sides. Initially it was regarded as a German victory but Britain remained in control of the North Sea.

German Bight – an area between the 2 headlands of the Netherlands and Denmark. In 1955 the name was changed from the original Heligoland, possibly because we did not like to be reminded of the failed raid against German surface ships by RAF bomber squadrons. We received more damage than the German ships and as a result daylight bombing was abandoned in favour of night missions.

Humber – the area around the estuary of the River Humber on the east coast of Northern England. Although it is now just an estuary, during the Ice Age, when sea level was lower, the river had a long freshwater course across the dried up North Sea. The area of sea off the Norfolk coast is notoriously treacherous for shipping and the stretch off Cromer is well named as the Devil’s Throat.  It was here that one particularly stormy night in 1693 two hundred ships were lost and over a thousand lives. Thirteen miles out to sea from Cromer are the notorious Haisborough sands which together with their strong currents have produced a historic graveyard for ships travelling between Thames and Tyne.

Thames – named after the estuary of the River Thames, the longest river entirely in England and the 2nd longest in the UK. It includes the Principality of Sealand. Originally built for guarding the sea, the Maunsell Sea Forts were abandoned after the Second World War but in 1967 a British man Paddy Roy Bates occupied one of the towers and declared sovereignty. Now forty years later his son continues the legacy. After the disastrous North Sea flood of 1953 when 307 people in England lost their lives and there were further casualties on boats along North European coasts and in deeper waters of the North Sea, new flood control measures were put into place which culminated in the construction of the Thames Barrier in the 1970’s.

Read part 2 of this article: Sea Areas of the Shipping Forecast - Part 2

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