Safe Communications on the Water
Mention a VHF radio to any small boat owner and the immediate question is, “Why do I need one if I have a cellphone?” However, relying on a phone while fishing offshore or cruising in out-of-the-way coves may not work due to lack of coverage and may not be safe, not to mention that cellphones are poor swimmers. VHF (very high frequency) radios come in fixed mount or handheld versions. Fixed VHFs are wired into the ship’s power supply, usually have more features, and have up to 25 watts of power, which means they output signal farther (approximately 25 miles) especially with a remote antenna mounted up high on the cabintop or mast. Handhelds are battery powered, have an output of 1-5 watts, and can reach 3-8 miles when used 5-10 feet above the waterline. Expect a battery life of 8-20 hours depending on use. Handhelds have the benefit of being independent of your boat’s electrical system in case you lose power and they can be used in the dinghy while exploring or visiting other vessels. (Technically, you need a special license to use one ashore.) Both fixed and handheld models offer boater-specific functionality that phones just don’t have. Here are seven ways a VHF radio improves on cellphone communications and how one may help you stay in touch or even save your life.
CONNECTIVITY VHFs work on line-of-sight so they don’t perform well around corners and behind islands but they do have a greater reach across open water than cell phones and that’s important when you’re beyond three miles offshore. Channel 16 is solely dedicated to distress and hailing calls so if you run into trouble, you can connect automatically to maritime assistance agencies like the Coast Guard or a marine towing service. The VHF also allows you to stay connected to boating friends in the area, all of whom can listen in on a conversation. You can share fishing tips or ask if anyone has spotted your kids running off with the dinghy. Keep in mind that your conversations on the radio aren’t point-to-point, so they’re not private. Also remember that when you use a channel, others cannot use it, so this isn’t for idle chit chat about last night’s game.
Digital Elective Calling (DSC) The DSC feature (built into most VHF models) is a function that alerts boats in your area to your distress call. At the push of a button, DSC alerts not only authorities, but also boaters near you who are most likely to be able to render aid quickly due to their proximity. GPS enabled, the DSC call allows others to pinpoint your location even if you’re unable to verbalize it in the moment.
Automatic Identification System (AIS) AIS is a transponder on other vessels that allows you to identify them by their call sign and alerts you to their bearing, course, and speed. It’s the preeminent collision avoidance system on the water. Some VHF radios that are AIS-enabled allow you to track these boats and that comes in handy in low visibility conditions like fog or nighttime. WEATHER You can receive real-time NOAA and SAME alerts for upcoming weather and general weather forecasts usually found on VHF channels 1, 2, and 3. Some radios have up to 10 weather channels. If you’re out of cell range, a good weather forecast can make the difference between a great day of fishing and an ordeal.
WEATHERPROOFING Cell phones don’t like water but they are strangely drawn to it as is evidenced by the three drowned ones under my slip. However, VHF radios are built to take rain, splashes, and in serious cases, even a dunking. Most fixed mount radios are waterproof to certain standards including IPX 6 (splash-proof), IPX 7 (dunking to 1 meter), or IPX 8 (fully immersed in more than 1 meter). This makes them ideal for mounting under a T-top or on a center console dash that is exposed to rain and waves. Some handheld radios float, so when you lose one overboard, you can always circle back and pick it up. Try doing that with your cell phone.
SIZE AND PRICE Today’s VHFs (both handheld and fixed mount) are sleeker than they used to be, so they don’t eat up a lot of dash or pocket space and they go easy on the wallet. Expect to pay $150-$900 for a VHF depending on whether it’s a handheld or fixed mount and its feature set.
FRESH FEATURES Today’s VHFs come packed with features including loudhailer functionality that will also sound pre-programmed fog signals. Some have a crew overboard (MOB) button so you can pinpoint the exact location where someone went into the drink and then navigate back to them. Noise cancelling features ensure voice clarity in some radios. Others have large screens so you can see AIS targets and other information. Some even have “last call recording” so you can listen again if important information was conveyed that you didn’t quite catch the first time. Most radios also have backlit keys for easy nighttime operation. Finally, most radios come with a 3-year standard warranty. Try getting that free from Apple. Safety is the key justification for having a VHF aboard but they’re so much more specific to boating communications than phones that even small boat owners should ask themselves, “Why would I leave the dock without one?”
This informative article is written by Zuzana Prochazka and courtesty of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt Magazine. To see the original and more great articles, please visit greatlakesscuttlebutt.com
- Mindy Goodman