Q&A with Zeb Soanes
What links do you have with the sea?
I’m from Lowestoft and descended from an old fishing family. The sea is a powerful draw to me, and I return to Suffolk often. There is something incredibly healthy about standing on the very edge of a country with all of the hustle and bustle of civilisation behind you and nothing before you but the North Sea. It puts everything into perspective.
How did you get the job?
I started reading the Shipping Forecast in 2001, when I joined Radio 4 presentation. Previously, I had been a television announcer on BBC One and Two. It had been a long-held ambition to read the Shipping Forecast one day, having grown up by the sea and listened to it all my life.
Is it difficult to read?
It must be read very clearly at dictation speed, so that those who need to notate it, can. It’s a fine balance, because time is limited: three minutes for the forecast itself, regardless how much or little weather there might be.
Why is it so important?
Many people comment on the Shipping Forecast’s simplicity, dependability and reliability. All you need is a battery, solar or wind-up radio. Many people talk of its reassurance and comfort when they are out at sea. It’s a psychological anchor to the mainland.
Have you seen how sailors use the Forecast?
When I started reading it, the captain of a research vessel kindly took me out to show me how he listens to the forecast, plotting charts etc. That was incredibly useful as it gives me a very clear focus on ‘who’ I am broadcasting to.
A memorable occasion
Broadcasting from the top of Orfordness Lighthouse in Suffolk. It was prompted by a Twitter follower, who told me that the lighthouse was marked for decommission, and he thought it would be a lovely send-off to read the Shipping Forecast from the top.
The lighthouse stands only metres from the shoreline. It seems rather poignant and perhaps fitting that a landmark that has stood for 200 years, and survived storms, flying-bombs and machine-gun fire, may ultimately be swallowed by the sea.
Why do so many non-sailors love the Shipping Forecast?
It’s one of those things that is often included to define our collective sense of ‘Britishness’, whatever that means: red telephone boxes, Wimbledon, Big Ben …
But more than that, it reminds us that we’re an island of people, surrounded by the sea, a force of nature that has both provided for us and protected us, and upon which we’ve built a great seafaring heritage: heroic rescues, tragic losses and epic battles at sea.
Hearing the forecast is like a nightly census of the waters that surround us, and while we’re told of biblical-sized waves smashing against Rockall, the listener, tucked up in bed at home, takes comfort that they are safe and warm, offering thoughts to those battened down far out at sea.
First published: RYA Magazine, Summer 2016
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