The BBC shipping forecast has long been an inspiration and a guide for seafarers. From its poetic delivery to the unusual names of the different forecast areas, there is a certain romance contained within it.
It gave us our name and has inspired many others, like Toby Carr, who is currently on a mission to sea kayak to every region of the forecast. We were on board with Toby from the beginning and have been champing at the bit to bring you his story. So, without further ado, here it is...
A beam of light silently rotates into the darkening sky, glinting in the diamond glazing bars and shining on the inside of the glass. A gentle, cool wind blows in the dusk and the quiet, soft swish of the swell on the sea wafts in the yellow reflection of the rising moon. The light from the tower picks up a sparkle in the stays and rigging outside the lantern, the last of the pinky orange evening is reflected the metalwork. Green window frames with stone surrounds stand out against the white render of the building that steps up symmetrically like a ziggurat. I’m sitting watching the sun go down by the lighthouse on Cape Finisterre in northern Spain having rounded the rocky headland earlier in the day, marking a significant point on a journey to visit all the areas of the Shipping Forecast by sea kayak. The light sweeps over again and I begin to see it showing up the rocks, I follow the line of the beam out to sea. There’s the distant hum of an engine and the blinking lights of small boats on the water start to show themselves. The bright moon rises through yellow clouds and the sky starts to clear for the first time all day. It’s a cool evening with the trill of crickets and some light jazz music drifting from a bar in the distance. I sit, absorbing the spectacle until it gets fully dark and wander back with the smell of pine and eucalyptus trees in the breeze. It’s a magical thing to see and makes me think of the differences of watching and being immersed in a place and how tiny I must look from above, on my own in a small boat that has become my world on the ocean.
I’m in the ‘Fitzroy’ area of the forecast, a broadcast I grew up listening to and became fascinated by the strange names of places and the clipped but precise language used to form its poetic rhythms. Named after the man who pioneered the idea of forecasting the weather and founder of the Met Office, Fitzroy, or Finisterre is significant for lots of reasons. Historically a point of pilgrimage forming an end for many of the Camino routes to Santiago de Compostela and being steeped in Pagan and Celtic traditions it was for millennia, the edge of the known world and is one of a few points at the end of the earth that form my journey around the stalwart of BBC Radio4 programming. Why? Is the first question people ask. Why would you take to the seas to follow a weather forecast? In truth there are many things that came together to form the project from a vague idea into a plan. For me, I think it comes down to reconnecting with the water, seeking out wild places that make me feel truly alive, reminding myself of the power of nature and the longness of time.
My parents met through dinghy sailing in the unlikely location of Bradford. My mum was born in Wales, had grown up in Eastbourne in and out of the sea and was a skilled swimmer. My dad was from Sheffield, his family had been steelworkers and ship fitters further north on the Tyne. I remember him talking about going to the shipyards with his granddad as a kid. Whilst we weren’t a particularly boaty family (I grew up in Rutland, about as far from the sea as you can get) and we did other things like hill walking, biking and wild swimming, we were definitely what someone described to me recently as ‘a bit salty’. My parents had lived in Cornwall for a while (my sister was born in Truro) and had got into sailing bigger boats around the coast. My dad’s brothers both had caravans and following the move to the midlands, he had borrowed some money from his mum to buy what he called a floating caravan. Looking back, I think we only had this boat (A Hirondelle catamaran) for about six years but the time spent close to the water had a big impact on me, my brother and sister. I think it gave us a sense of the possibilities and freedom of the sea as well as a taste of adventure and discovery.
We spent most weekends and holidays there, come rain or shine. My sister and I often joke on particularly dismal, grey and windy days that it would be a good day to go on the boat. Typical jobs would involve scraping the barnacles off the bottom, reapplying the antifouling and pumping out the bilge tanks, my sister remembers being hoisted up the mast on a bread board to fix the halyards and being scared by the lights of ferries whilst keeping watch at night crossing of the channel, she must have only been about ten. Not quite your white trousered, deck shoed kind of yachting, this was a bit more hands on. My dad always took responsibility for fixing the toilet - he said as Skipper it was his job to do the things that nobody else wanted to do. We had some plastic mugs with names written on them that someone must have given us as a gift. He had ‘Skipper’ my Mum had ‘Mutineer’ my sister was ‘First Mate’ my brother was ‘Cabin Boy’ and mine just said ‘Idiot’ whatever people say, it really is tough being the youngest sibling! We explored the rivers Deben, Alde, Orwell, Stour and the Walton Backwaters. Favourite trips included beaching the boat in the dropping tide and spending lazy days playing in the sand and sea, mooring off Prettyman’s Point amongst the small sandy cliffs or seeing the Thames barges and stopping at the pub in Pin Mill. We also made several channel crossings via Ramsgate to France, Belgium and Holland under sail and motor. I distinctly remember the feeling of driving back from the coast in the back of the car after a weekend outdoors, sun burnt and with the dried saltwater encrusted on my face and the smell of toxic paints and muddy wellies in the boot. Feeling tired and exhausted but utterly happy and content.
During this time my mum suffered a debilitating brain injury from a viral infection that left her in need of supportive care ever since. She’s still active and when she was well enough, we went on the sea. My Dad made sure us kids were trained in using the VHF, calling for help as well as listening to and interpreting the Shipping Forecast on the radio in case he went overboard. When my he died, my brother read a quote from 'The Wind in the Willows' about messing about in boats and we draped his old ensign over the coffin. I’d never seen him happier that when he was on the water. My brother used to keep a photograph by his bedside of the five of us together before my mum was ill, on the foredeck of the boat in a muddy east coast marina. He died a few years ago following a long battle with cancer related to a genetic condition we both share. At his funeral, I read a passage from ‘We didn’t mean to go to sea’ by Arthur Ransome. Set around the east coast waters that we’d spent so much time in, the story takes three small children on an unplanned journey through stormy seas to an unfamiliar land. We’d known some people from the river that sailed ‘Peter Duck’ a beautiful timber boat built on the Orwell for Ransome and we’d sometimes meet and go on board. ‘Swallows and Amazons’ had been one of the two audio book cassette tapes that we had, along with 'The Jungle Book', we’d listen to them as we went to sleep. I think hearing the first few words of it now would still send me nodding off into a gently swaying doze.
I never got into sailing and after selling the boat, aside from regular holidays to visit grandparents on the coast, we didn’t have much to do with the sea. At the age of around twelve, I became seriously ill and my body stopped responding to the steroids that had been propping up my failing bone marrow. I became dependent on blood transfusions for several years and was part of an experimental gene therapy programme in the States. Whilst we desperately searched for a matched bone marrow donor, my condition worsened into Leukemia and the prospects were dire. At fifteen, I underwent a risky transplant with various complications following and a severely weakened immune system. It meant for long periods of time I was kept in isolation and for several months couldn’t go outdoors at all. I read books about long journeys and followed them in my imagination. With one of the other inpatients, at night we used to explore the hospital stairways, silent corridors and hidden departments. There was a covered tunnel where staff took a fag break, we used to call it ‘Smokey Mountain’ as there were always grey clouds hanging in the air, it was cold and uninsulated but had a view of the sky in contrast to the heat and bright lights of the wards. An underground subway linked two sides of the building and it was painted with a beach scene. The flooring changed as you walked down the ramp, it went from a hollow sounding timber to solid concrete, which was the line of the seawater in the mural. Below it, the floor changed from yellow to blue and you were gradually immersed into an underwater world, emerging on the other side for the canteen and x-ray department. It was a simple artwork but took me to another place every time I went through it. I had a similar experience recently in a hospital in Swindon recovering from a near fatal infection of Bacterial Meningitis. Only able to take small steps, in an otherwise dismal place, I explored different worlds through the art collection on the corridor walls, part of the brilliant Paintings in Hospitals initiative. Sometimes, I think adventure and exploration are states of mind as much as physical experiences.
For years, I was advised that I shouldn’t spend time outdoors and you could say I’ve taken this advice with a pinch of salt, literally. My aunt and uncle for as long as I can remember have been carrying out their own adventures by land and sea. It wouldn’t be unusual for us to spend an evening after a family meal lying on the floor in my grandparent’s lounge looking at their latest pictures from a journey to Spitsbergen or Greenland. After my dad died, they invited my sister and I for Christmas at their home in Jersey. Straight off the plane and we were in wetsuits jumping off the pier into the bay. A few days of surfing, kayaking and swimming in this beautiful island paradise was all I needed to reignite a connection to the ocean, the refreshing sense of freedom and possibility of the water. At the same time, I was diagnosed with cancer and underwent several operations to remove a tumour in my mouth and throat. By then I’d already started kayaking with my local club on the Thames and was spending more and more time in and on the water. That was around seven years ago now and since, I’ve qualified as an Advanced Water Sea Kayak Leader and coach. I’ll regularly be found on beaches or the sea somewhere around the coast of the UK. I love the simplicity of it, the kayak, the paddle and the water. For me, building confidence and strength in the things I thought I wouldn’t be able to do and the things I actually can do has been a big challenge and part of my journey around the Shipping Forecast is about pushing that further.
The project is called ‘Moderate Becoming Good Later’ and seeks to explore the most interest and challenging bits if the coast. This year I completed all of the areas outside the British Isles, a significant point of the journey that has taken me around the coast of Western Europe. I recently returned from Portugal (Trafalgar) to the UK to plan the remaining legs. The journey was kick started in 2018 with support from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. It’s something that I’ve largely undertaken solo although a big part of it is about meeting people on the water and finding out about what it means to them, discovering the places and cultures of the sea. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by a brilliant and supportive international community of kayakers united in a shared love for the ocean and coastal waters. The trip has taken me to exposed and remote corners of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Norway, the surfy coast of Denmark, the flat lands of Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, the wild tidal races of France and the impressive rocky outcrops and big surf beaches of Spain and Portugal. For most of the journey, I’m carrying all my kit with me, spending around 8 hrs on the water per day and camping along the way. Each area has had its own challenges, whether just being able to find somewhere to land negotiating big ocean swell, long open crossings, exploring hidden caves, navigating tidal flats and disappearing water. I love the variety of environments you can access in sea kayak and the range of skills that this requires - always something new to learn and develop.
I see it as a privilege to be on the sea, when the conditions are right and you can launch. It’s always a considered decision for me, especially when I’m alone. You become a kind of temporary visitor to places shaped and owned by nature. I feel an inner stillness and calm on the water, even in rough conditions, I often feel more at home on the sea than I do on land. Long days paddling mean I can enjoy watching the form of the water and how it changes, on calm days you can’t see where the sky ends and the water begins, it’s a beautiful, almost meditative sensation. There’s an ultimate freedom in the open ocean, a clear horizon when you’re not able to see land, you’re not just free to move but there’s a mental freedom - a sense of openness, full of possibility. I love the energy of moving water with swell and tides, you feel the power of nature and it make you feel fully alive - there’s an infectious energy in it that puts you absolutely in the moment. Seeing the coast from the outside looking inwards also gives you a perspective that many never see, the kayak lets you get close in and discover the remotest edges of the land and I like exploring this tentative position on the margins. On long sections you see the landscape and wildlife changing over days as the geology and bedrock shifts, you take in the patterns of development, human settlement and use of the land and seas in a way that you can’t at a fleeting glimpse. From this I feel a connection to a deeper time, seeing burnt and mangled rocks that bear the scars of the forces that shaped them millions of years ago, sunken valleys, raised beaches or newly formed lands and structures. There’s a vastness to it that is beyond any human existence. The salty water puts me right back in that car after a long weekend exploring the coast as a child and I’m as happy and content at the end of a day on the sea as I was then.
Like many others, I often listen to the Shipping Forecast as a way to drift off to sleep at night, it’s repetitive rhythm forms a reassuring and reliable constant for me that whatever is going on, the bigger forces of nature are still active and whilst the names of distant places drift in and out of my comprehension, somewhere out there, someone will be on the water. It forms the framework for what has become for me, a voyage of discovery. I’ve been lucky to meet some of the announcers behind the voices and have sat in dead silence, paranoid of slipping and pushing one of the many buttons by mistake, whilst it was read live from the depths of Broadcasting House in London. I even had a dedicated reading of the ‘Trafalgar’ forecast recently during an interview - a particular rarity to hear during the daytime. It’s been a special experience that has shown me what can happen when you open the door to new adventures, perhaps asking what if? rather than why? I hope that the journey can help others to find ways to connect with nature and imagine different realities. In parallel to my life on the water, I’m an architect, working with sustainable materials, applied design and social projects. I've recently joined the teaching staff at Falmouth University. I was delighted when Tom Kay, founder of Finisterre got in contact to share the story behind the name, after hearing me talking about my project with the BBC. I’m very happy to have a shared connection to the Shipping Forecast and be a part of the wider Finisterre community with values of responsible making and respect for the environment at its core.