Slate Uk

So Farewell Then, Finisterre

A familiar place is lost at sea.

The news generated a flurry of stories and editorials. A leader in this week’s Observer raised the prospect of thousands of people in Britain in mourning. The BBC’s Web site posted an obituary and made reference to 30 surviving siblings. It was another of those episodes in which a seemingly minor alteration can mean so much. There was to be a change to the Sea Area Map for the Shipping Forecast, which means a lot to many people who have nothing to do with shipping. The name “Finisterre” for an area of the Atlantic Ocean close to the Spanish coast was abolished. But why such a commotion over the name of a stretch of water?

It’s not true that a fascination with the seas is uniquely British. The success of The Perfect Storm and The Shipping News (at least in book form) reveals a latent pull of Atlantic gales and tales on the American side as well. What is missing elsewhere, though, is a national institution that allows the imagination to go to work with the seas four times a day. This is, of course, the BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast. It lasts for about eight minutes and offers gale warnings and forecasts for a huge swathe of water off northwestern Europe. The last broadcast of the day begins at about 12.50 a.m. and is particularly evocative because it’s preceded by a wistful piece of music called “Sailing By” and followed by the national anthem. The highlight of each broadcast is when the conditions in all the sea areas are read out. As many fans, including Seamus Heaney, have remarked, there’s something intensely comforting hearing about the diabolical weather in sea areas Forties, Tyne, Dogger, or German Bight while sitting in the safety of one’s home.

Finisterre refers to a large area off the northwest coast of Spain. The name is similar to a region of northwestern France, but there is no connection between the two. The fatal blow for “sea area Finisterre” came when Spain, which uses the same name to refer to an entirely different stretch of ocean, requested that Britain give up using it for its own purposes. (A reminder of past acrimony between the countries lives on in the name of the adjacent sea area of Trafalgar.) Reluctantly, the British agreed, and the area they previously called Finisterre was given a new name—Fitzroy. The naming of a sea area after a person rather than a geographical feature is a novelty, but if anyone has earned the right to a have one named after him, it is surely the founder of Britain’s Meteorological Office, Admiral Robert Fitzroy. He was captain of Charles Darwin’s ship, HMS Beagle, on its voyage round the world voyage.