“Fisher. German Bight. Southeast becoming cyclonic, then northwest later, three to five. Good, occasionally poor…”
For anyone who isn’t a hardened seadog, the Shipping Forecast, broadcast in the middle of each night on BBC Radio 4, is mainly just a set of sounds—meteorological dispatches from the maritime areas around the British Isles that, in an almost Pavlovian way, lull us into sleep.
But for the business consultant and now author Katie Carr, 46, it’s something far more. Those mysterious names—German Bight, South Utsire, Fastnet—are points on a map of her life and the lives of her loved ones.
It began six years ago, when Katie’s brother Marcus died, aged 37, from throat cancer caused by the rare genetic illness Fanconi anaemia. This prompted her other brother, Toby, a keen kayaker, to take on a crazy escapade: paddling around the different areas of the Shipping Forecast in Marcus’s memory.
The Shipping Forecast covers a huge expanse of water—from Iceland to Portugal, from Ireland to Norway, with Great Britain in the centre. “We grew up with the forecast,” says Katie, describing her and her siblings’ childhood, which involved a few trips across the Channel in their small family boat, “so the map of that area is etched into my mind. But I never thought: ‘Wait, what are those mountains over there? What is that like?’”
The answer, for the purposes of Toby’s journey, is that it’s tough. There’s the potential for tricky currents and swells, but also for logistical problems such as how to get ashore in the dark and where to pitch your tent. The whole thing takes months in both planning and execution. “That’s quite a difficult thing for anyone,” emphasises Katie.
But it was even harder for Toby because, like Marcus, he also had Fanconi anaemia. Toby died from cancer, aged 40, in January 2022, with several areas of the Shipping Forecast still unexplored. So, Katie, a far less practised kayaker, picked up the paddle. “I’m in the Shannon region now,” she says, explaining her absence from her home in Barcelona, “because I’m trying to bag the places that Toby didn’t.”
But before this physically exertive act of commemoration came an altogether more literary one: Toby had been planning to write a book about his journey, though this was left in a rather inchoate state. Katie had to grapple with “four different notebooks”, “voice recordings”, “a lot of phone videos” and even old WhatsApp messages to write Moderate Becoming Good Later, which was published in June.
As she tells me about this process over a Zoom call, Katie reaches for something off-screen. It is Toby’s phone. “I can open it only because, when I was staying with him when he was ill, he told me the code so we could get into Netflix. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had access to everything for the book.”
It also gives Katie access to her brother—his image, his voice, his thoughts—and to her own grief. “It was really hard in the beginning,” she says. “But there were lots of days when it was actually a joy to see Toby being excited about passing Cape Finisterre or watching dolphins.” Now, in digital form, he has become a companion for the rest of the journey, about which Katie hopes to write a second book.
In the meantime, there is more paddling and more grieving to do, although perhaps the two aren’t so different. “The sea can just come up and get you, and you end up in the water and have to get back in the boat,” says Katie. “You’re momentarily knocked over, then you get back into your life.”