Boater Communication

VHF radios have many advantages over cellphones. Here are seven of them.

Mention a VHF radio to a small-boat owner and the immediate question is, “Why do I need one if I have a cellphone?” Relying on a phone while fishing offshore or cruising in out-of-the-way coves may not be safe, and cellphones are poor swimmers.

VHF, or very high frequency, radios come in fixed-mount and handheld versions. Fixed VHFs usually have more features and up to 25 watts of power, which means they output their signal farther, approximately 25 miles, especially with a remote antenna mounted up high.

Handhelds have a 1- or 5-watt power output and can reach three to eight miles when used from five to 10 feet above the waterline. Expect a battery life of eight to 20 hours, depending on use. Handhelds have the benefit of being independent of a boat’s electrical system, in case the boat loses power, and they can be taken on an inflatable kayak or SUP while exploring or visiting other vessels. (Technically, you need a special license to use one ashore).

Read on to discover seven ways a VHF radio improves on cellphone communications.


VHFs work on line-of-sight, so they don’t perform well around corners and behind islands, but they do have a great reach across open water. Channel 16 is dedicated to distress and hailing calls, so if trouble arises, you can connect automatically to maritime assistance agencies such as the Coast Guard or a marine towing service. A group of boaters can stay connected and listen in on the same conversation. Anglers can share fishing tips (and lies). Keep in mind that VHF conversations aren’t private, and when you use a channel, others can’t use it, so don’t engage in idle chitchat.


The DSC feature — built into most VHF models — is a function that alerts boats in the area to a distress call. At the push of a button, DSC alerts not only authorities but also boaters nearby who are most likely to be able to render aid quickly. GPS-enabled, the DSC call allows others to pinpoint your location even if you’re unable to verbalize it. The Lowrance Link-9 is a good example of a compact VHF with DSC.


AIS is a transponder on vessels that allows other boats to identify them by their call sign. AIS alerts a boat operator to other boats’ bearing, course and speed. It’s the preeminent collision-avoidance system on the water. Some VHF radios that are AIS-enabled can track other boats, which comes in handy in low-visibility conditions.


Real-time NOAA and SAME alerts for upcoming weather and general weather forecasts are usually found on VHF channels 1, 2 and 3. Some radios have up to 10 weather channels. A good weather forecast can make the difference between a great day of fishing and an ordeal.


Cellphones don’t like water but are strangely drawn to it — three have drowned under my slip — and don’t float. 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 (splashproof), IPX 7 (dunking to 1 meter) or IPX8 (fully immersed in more than 1 meter). Such protection makes them ideal for mounting under a T-top or on a center console dash. The Furuno FM4800 is waterproof to an IP68 standard, the highest waterproof rating for this class of marine electronics, which makes it a fit for vessels with an exposed bridge, where it can be bracket or flush mounted.

Some handheld radios float, including the ICOM M36, Standard Horizon HX210, Uniden MHS75 and Cobra MRHH350FLT.


Today’s VHFs (both handheld and fixed mount) are sleeker, so they don’t eat up a lot of dash or pocket space, and they go easy on the wallet. Garmin’s VHF 110 fixed-mount model has a small footprint with a street price of about $230, while its AIS-enabled VHF 210 is about double that amount. ICOM’s M605, with a 4.3-inch color display, may cost upwards of $1,000, and Raymarine’s fully featured R73 AIS receiver model is $900, but value-model handhelds start at less than $100 and fixed-mount models cost from $130 to $800, depending on features.


Today’s VHFs come packed with features, including loudhailer functionality that will also sound pre-programmed fog signals. The Furuno FM4800 can operate as an intercom and has eight patterns of alert sounds. It also has an MOB button, like most other VHFs, to pinpoint the exact location where someone went into the drink.

Garmin’s GHS 20 is wireless, meaning it’s a handheld that acts like a remote-access mic without the attending cord, so you can walk around the deck with it. Raymarine’s R90 is modular with a wired or wireless remote that controls a black-box radio that’s out of sight. It’s a great way to introduce multiple stations on a small vessel.

Noise-cancelling features ensure voice clarity in some radios. Some have large screens to display AIS targets and other information. Standard Horizon’s GX1700W has a 3-inch display, and the ICOM M506 has a 3.4-inch LCD display. The GX1700 also stores up to 100 waypoints and can display course, bearing and distance to each. Some radios, such as the Uniden UM380, have last call recording, so you can listen again if important information was conveyed that you didn’t quite catch. Most radios have backlit keys for easy nighttime operation.

Finally, most radios come with a three-year standard warranty.



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