Sailing By

Sailing By was written in 1963 when the BBC commissioned several British composers to contribute some “library music” and its first public airing was as background music for a documentary about a balloon race.

Ten years later the Head of Presentation at Radio 4 was searching for something in the library for something simple to precede the shipping forecast, and found Sailing By. He thought it a fitting end to broadcasting and the anticipation of some important news: “it is haunting, the actual melody is very memorable, and with the rich cellos sort of sweeping away, there was nothing better to capture sailing across the high seas and adventure and mystery – all those things were encapsulated by it.”

Ernest Tomlinson, a gifted composer himself, and the creator of the Light Music Society, explained: “to be technical, Sailing By is a tune whose every note is taken from the notes of all the chords that propel it. The genius, having set the simplest of accompaniments to lilt the tune along, is to enrich the melody by way of felicitous orchestration: the rise and fall of the flute figurations which introduce the piece and feature throughout as fill-ins at the end of phrases; the undulating clarinets which become more busy and join in the flutes’ ornamentations as the climax is reached.”

Sailing By became a huge success: many music compilations included it, and it became thought of affectionately by British radio listeners as soothing accompaniment to bedtime. The lead singer of the Pulp, Jarvis Cocker, chose Sailing By as one of his Desert Island Discs, saying for many years he had used it “as an aid to restful sleep.”


So it lulled the nation to sleep, until in 1993, Michael Green, the BBC Controller, needed to make some serious cost cuts. His accountants had confirmed that cutting Sailing By would be one of a few a good contenders for this purpose. The decision to remove Sailing By provoked many protests; the Daily Mail ran a major headline “SAILING BY DRIFTS OFF INTO THE NIGHT”. The Daily Telegraph ran another “BBC lullaby weighs anchor and sails off.” The Evening Standard ran a letter “It is a sign of the decline of the BBC that it has decided to axe Sailing By…. The BBC’s identity is built on a few traditional features and Sailing By is one of them.” One of the many letters to BBC’s Feedback programme said “… this two-minute slot has guaranteed a good night’s sleep to millions.”

The Shipping Forecast was broadcast without its music, but the protests did not die down, and on Monday 2nd October, 1995 it was restored, to be heard immediately after Book At Bedtime. It has been aired every night since. 

Listen to this clip from BBC Radio 4 about why “Sailing By” still introduces the Shipping Forecast more than 50 years after it was first written: