Going out on the water isn’t the same as going out for a drive. Even in relatively remote areas, if you go problems on the side of the road, someone will likely drive by to help you. That simply isn’t the case at sea. A VHF radio may be your only lifeline in an emergency, the only means you have of reaching and receiving assistance. A VHF marine radio remains the most useful communication device to have aboard any recreational boat. It would be folly to go boating without one, similar to not taking along a life preserver! That’s why we are here to provide you with all the information you need about marine radios.
Marine VHF radios are designed for communications across the water and rely on radio waves to send and receive transmissions. They use frequencies specifically set aside for this purpose and are great for general communication or if an emergency arises. They rely on a line of sight in order to function. Anything that blocks this line of sight (earth curvature, land masses, etc.) will disrupt the signals. Thankfully, there are few such obstacles on the open water.
The most powerful marine radios are those with long antennas and high wattage. If multiple boats simultaneously transmit on one frequency, the strongest signal is the one which will come through.
Why buy a boat radio at all? Why not simply use a cell phone? There are a number of good reasons. For one, mobile networks offer spotty coverage on the open water, (even nonexistent coverage in many locations). Cell phones also lack the weather alerts and DSC features of the marine radios and are not waterproof.
Most importantly, a marine VHF radio facilitates a rescue far more effectively than a cell phone! You can only call one person with a cell phone. With a marine radio, you can call everyone in range. Those who hear your signal can come in on your exact location to offer assistance.
A radio is an important safety tool for all mariners who venture out on the water, whether they are offshore, or on inland waterways. Knowing what radio to choose can be quite confusing because of the range of models and features available. Here, we offer some important considerations when choosing a VHF marine, portable or fixed radio.
A VHF, or very high frequency, set is recommended for better range than some other options and better quality communication. Effective range is: up to 20 nm, may be further, depending on the conditions and if you are using a land-based repeater. VHF with DSC and GPS connectivity functions, provide extra safety and convenience.
The VHF band is, by law, intended for marine use only. Several radios offer additional bands, notably the Family Radio Service (FRS) band for local land communication. They include programmable Land Mobile Radio (LMR) channels for land mobile communication.
A fixed-mount VHF marine radio is one which is permanently mounted to your boat and wired into the boat’s electrical system. Benefits include a higher power output and range, than the handheld radios, dedicated power, and ease-of-use in choppy sea conditions. Many options are available for antennas (straight mount, swivel mount, ratchet mount, rail mount, etc.). You can even set up dual stations and navigate using GPS.
Some radios also have automated fog horns that connect to an external hailer horn. Some have built-in hailers that act as a public address system. A large motorboat or yacht sailing further offshore will need greater range, so a fixed mount unit will be a better solution. A larger vessel may opt for dual station control with a remote handset. Fixed radios do require installation, including a connection to a power source, a VHF antenna and GPS capability.
This is the portable version of a VHF marine radio. It isn’t mounted; you carry it around with you. These days, many handheld units offer most of the same advanced features as the fixed-mount units. You can get extremely basic models at the lower end and very sophisticated ones at the higher end.
Features can include DSC capability, built-in GPS, a distress button, waterproofing, noise canceling, and much more.
The range is lower than what you will get from a fixed-mount radio, but handheld models offer a couple of very important benefits. They offer a backup if your ship’s electrical system crashes in an emergency (or your ship sinks altogether). On top of that, they are portable. You can take them anywhere on your vessel or even off of it
Your VHF radio is your lifeline to the outside world, and as long as you know how to properly use one, it can be both a convenience and a lifesaver. While we believe that all boats traveling more than a mile or two from land should have a fixed-mount VHF, here are some other important features you would like to know before eventually purchase the best marine radio.
A fixed-mount radio can transmit on anything from one to 25 watts of power. Transmitting on one watt allows you to talk to nearby boats without disrupting other transmissions. Transmitting on 25 watts will maximize your range (anywhere from five to 30 miles, depending on a clear line of sight).
Under normal conditions, radios operate for a range of between 7 and 20 hours. Battery life depends on the radio’s physical size, which determines just how big of a battery it will hold, whether it transmits at 5 or 6 watts on the high power setting, and if the battery pack also powers a GPS receiver. In general, floating VHFs have shorter battery life than heavier, non-buoyant models. Keeping an extra battery on hand is a wise move.
One of the biggest developments of recent years has been the buoyancy technology within handheld radios. So, if by accident you drop the radio over the side, it will come to the surface so you can retrieve it. To aid retrieval, some handheld sets have strobe lighting, so that they can be seen in the water, especially after sunset.
Handheld marine radios usually have either a dot matrix or a LCD display. A seven-segment LCD display looks like your clock radio; it is “blocky” and hard to read. A dot matrix display can generate any image, and looks more like the screen on your smartphone or television. While dot matrix may not be a vital feature, it certainly makes for a more pleasant user experience. Remember that a dot matrix display will normally be more expensive than the LCD unit.
DSC stands for “digital selective calling.” It is one of the most important emergency features for marine radios, and has actually been built into all fixed-mount radios since 1999. You’ll also find it in many handheld units. With DSC, you can send out a distress call to the Coast Guard and all other DSC marine radios in your area with the push of a button. Connect your radio to GPS and you can transmit your exact location. This is very important! Many people never do this, and are wasting a potentially life-saving feature of the DSC.
GPS is an incredibly useful feature. You can use it in conjunction with your DSC to transmit your exact location in distress. This allows rescue parties to make their way to you directly.
GPS is also useful for general navigational purposes. You can view your latitude and longitude, and even set up custom waypoints as you travel. That way, you can find your way to and from specific locations. This is excellent for fishing, diving, and numerous other purposes.
Early warnings, in case of inclement weather conditions at sea, can literally save your life. For that reason, you are going to want a marine radio equipped with weather alerts. These should include alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as well as Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) alerts. SAME alerts are specific to your region; NOAA alerts are national.
Many hand-held radios are offered as water resistant or waterproof, and can float if dropped in water. Marine radios may provide various levels of water resistance starting from “no water resistance” up to “actual being waterproof in more than three feet of water”. Consider your normal boating conditions to determine to which degree you need your marine radio to be, to get the most benefit.
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