This es­tab­lished tech­nol­ogy re­mains as vi­tal today as ever

SAIL - - Contents - By Adam Cort

What to con­sider when choos­ing a new hand­held VHF

For many sailors, cell phones have be­come their pri­mary means of both ship-toshore and ship-to-ship com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Even the Coast Guard will of­ten ask for a cell num­ber af­ter it re­ceives a dis­tress call. None of this, how­ever, makes a VHF ra­dio any less im­por­tant—and this goes just as much for a hand­held as any fixed-mount model.

There are a num­ber of rea­sons for this: first and fore­most, the fact that de­spite the seem­ing ubiq­uity of cell cov­er­age these days, it is still far from to­tal, even for those sail­ing coastal. Of course, for those go­ing off­shore or ven­tur­ing to re­mote lo­cals, cell cov­er­age sim­ply isn’t part of the equa­tion.

Beyond that, while it may be con­ve­nient to call ahead to a ma­rina or make din­ner reser­va­tions by phone, VHF re­mains the pri­mary means of mak­ing a dis­tress call, ei­ther to the Coast Guard or any tow­ing ser­vices in the area, both of which mon­i­tor chan­nel 16. Same thing with any other boats in the vicin­ity, mak­ing VHF a crit­i­cal safety de­vice. If you’ve run aground and don’t hap­pen to have the cell num­ber of that sport fish­ing boat roar­ing by, the only way you’re go­ing to be able to hail it is by VHF, even if you are lit­er­ally stuck in the shadow of a nearby cell tower.

Of course, cell phones are no­to­ri­ous for run­ning out of juice or drop­ping dead af­ter get­ting wet, while VHFs are both heav­ily marinized and run off re­li­able sources of power—ei­ther the house bat­tery bank with a fixed-mount unit, or a rock-solid bat­tery pack, or packs, in the case of a hand­held. VHF ra­dios also re­main the pri­mary means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with such ma­rine en­ti­ties as lock ten­ders, bridge ten­ders, har­bor masters and race com­mit­tees, as

well as a great way of pick­ing up NOAA weather fore­casts. In the case of hand­helds, they are also an ex­cel­lent (and fully wa­ter­proof!) means of reach­ing out from the “mother ship” to any crew who may be off ex­plor­ing or run­ning er­rands in the dinghy.

Fi­nally, hand­held VHFs ful­fill one of the crit­i­cal re­quire­ments of any safety sys­tem—re­dun­dancy. Not only are they up to the task of op­er­at­ing amid wind and rain, but they keep on work­ing even when your cell phone has long given up the ghost or your fixed-mount ra­dio has been ren­dered non-func­tional due to fire, a sink­ing or af­ter you’ve had to aban­don ship. Not for noth­ing do sailors in­clude a VHF hand­held in their ditch bag.


Over the years, hand­held VHFs have be­come both a good deal more re­li­able and, in many cases, a good deal more so­phis­ti­cated than in years past. This has re­sulted in a wide range of mod­els that vary dra­mat­i­cally in terms of size, per­for­mance and fea­tures.

Still, one of the first things you need to think about when choos­ing a par­tic­u­lar model re­mains how long the ra­dio will con­tinue to func­tion on a sin­gle charge, some­thing that is largely a func­tion of bat­tery size.

Pub­lished bat­tery lives range from around seven hours to 20 hours—de­pend­ing on the size of the Li-Ion cell in use—al­though, Hans Rooker of Stan­dard Hori­zon notes that ac­tual bat­tery life largely de­pends on how much you use your ra­dio and whether you are trans­mit­ting at full power—5 or 6 watts de­pend­ing on the brand/model—or low power, as lit­tle as a sin­gle watt.

(As a re­minder, VHF range is lim­ited by line-of-sight, so range is a func­tion of how high up you are as well as pure trans­mit­ting power. For ref­er­ence, max power for fixed-mount ra­dios is lim­ited to 25 watts, as op­posed to 6 watts for a hand­held.)

An­other fac­tor in the bat­tery life­span equa­tion is whether the ra­dio is equipped with an in­ter­nal GPS, with which you can find your po­si­tion, nav­i­gate and even store way­points. It can also be cou­pled with the same Dig­i­tal Se­lec­tive Call­ing (DSC) emer­gency bea­con ca­pa­bil­ity found on fixed mounts. Ob­vi­ously, this fea­ture re­quires power to op­er­ate and by ex­ten­sion a larger bat­tery if you still want ex­tended us­age.

For ref­er­ence, Rooker says the gen­er­ally rec­og­nized “us­age lev­els” for a hand­held are de­scribed as “5-5-90:” or 5 per­cent trans­mit­ting, 5 per­cent re­ceiv­ing and 90 per­cent on standby. “There are a lot of vari­ables in bat­tery life,” he adds, not­ing that even some­thing as sim­ple as turn­ing off the back­light­ing on a model equipped with this fea­ture can add hours to the amount of us­age you can get out of sin­gle charge.

Speak­ing of DSC, ar­guably the sin­gle most dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of any hand­held VHF (even more so than bat­tery life) is whether or not it in­cludes this fea­ture—a tech­nol­ogy that al­lows the user to send out a dig­i­tal dis­tress mes­sage to the Coast Guard or any other DSC-equipped ves­sels in the area that clearly in­di­cates your iden­tity, your lo­ca­tion and the na­ture of the emer­gency.

An im­por­tant part of the Global Mar­itime Dis­tress Safety Sys­tem (GMDSS), DSC can lit­er­ally mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death if you are aboard a ves­sel without a fixed-mount VHF. (As­sum­ing you’ve pro­grammed it with the nec­es­sary Mar­itime Mo­bile Ser­vice Iden­tity, or MMSI num­ber. Don’t forget do so when­ever you buy a new ra­dio!) On a less dra­matic note, DSC also al­lows you to hail an­other DSC ra­dio di­rectly, switch the two ra­dios to an­other work­ing chan­nel and track and share po­si­tions.

Beyond that, an­other key fea­ture of any hand­held VHF ra­dio is whether or not it floats. In­tro­duced a few years ago, this fea­ture has saved num­ber­less sailors un­told amounts of pain, since ra­dios like any other item of value aboard ship seem to have an in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­sire to go for a swim. The good news here is that while there was a time when bat­tery tech­nol­ogy lim­ited float­ing per­for­mance to smaller units of­fer­ing a shorter bat­tery life and fewer fea­tures, that is no longer the case. In this same vein, some VHF hand­helds are also equipped with glow-in-the dark strips or seals, or even wa­ter-ac­ti­vated strobes that al­low you to find them in the event that they should go over the side ay night. Far from be­ing just a con­ve­nience, this fea­ture could ac­tu­ally be a life­saver if a mem­ber of the crew should hap­pen to lose their grip on the ra­dio af­ter dark in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion.

In ad­di­tion to such add-ons as antenna adapters, which al­low you to con­nect your hand­held to the ship’s antenna, head­set or hailer jacks, FM re­cep­tion, or al­ka­line bat­tery packs that al­low you to use long-stor­age-life dis­pos­able bat­ter­ies (in ad­di­tion to the stan­dard Lithium-ion bat­tery pack), the other ma­jor vari­able among today’s hand­helds is screen type. Specif­i­cally, you’ll want to de­cide whether to go with a more con­ven­tional seg­mented dis­play (of the kind that rep­re­sents nu­mer­als in seven seg­ments) or a dot-ma­trix screen, which al­lows much greater flex­i­bil­ity in the form of curved num­bers and more de­tailed icons rep­re­sent­ing things like power lev­els, vol­ume, lat/lon co­or­di­nates or weather alerts. Granted, icons like these are avail­able us­ing the other, older tech­nol­ogy, but they’re harder to read.

As a corol­lary to screen type, there is the ques­tion of screen size and whether or not it’s back­lit. Ob­vi­ously, the big­ger the eas­ier to read, es­pe­cially with a more so­phis­ti­cated

model of­fer­ing a plethora of fea­tures. How­ever, with a more ba­sic unit, a smaller—and by ex­ten­sion, less ex­pen­sive screen—should be more than suf­fi­cient.

Speak­ing of price, a last but no less im­por­tant is­sue is cost, with prices rang­ing from $100 or less for more ba­sic units like Uniden’s At­lantis 150 float­ing hand­held; to be­tween $100 and $200 for mid-range units like West Ma­rine’s VHF75 float­ing model, which in­cludes a glow-in-the-dark seal for easy re­cov­ery at night; to $200 or more for a higher-end ra­dio like Stan­dard Hori­zon’s HX870, which in­cludes every­thing from a large, easy-toread screen to an in­te­grated 66 chan­nel GPS re­ceiver to DSC call­ing, an MOB func­tion, pro­grammable scan­ning, a wa­ter-ac­ti­vated emer­gency strobe and a ro­bust 1,800 mAh LiIon bat­tery with a 3-hour quick charger and Al­ka­line bat­tery tray. (Yeah, it also floats.) the sole means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing and navi-gation aboard a daysailer or pocket cruiser, then a high-end model with scads of add-ons and plenty of bat­tery life may be the way for you to go. If, on the other hand, you are look­ing for a hand­held that will serve in a sec­ondary ca­pac-ity to a fixed mount on a larger cruis­ing boat and which will be mak­ing plenty of trips in the dinghy and/or ashore, then a smaller, more ex­pend­able model won't just save you money: it will also be more pleas­ant to carry when clipped to your life jacket or a belt loop. "It all de­pends on how you plan to use your ra­dio and what you want out of it," Rooker says, sum­ming up the sit­u­a­tion.

VHF com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­main as vi­tal today as ever (left); higherend hand­helds, like this West Ma­rine model, of­fer a wealth of fea­tures, in­clud­ing DSC, GPS nav­i­ga­tion and large, easy-toread screens (be­low)

The fact that a hand­held floats is more than just a con­ve­nience, it can be vi­tal in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion This Stan­dard Hori­zon model floats de­spite hav­ing a wealth of fea­tures, in­clud­ing DSC, GPS and a num­ber of nav­i­ga­tion func­tions

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