“Roger, Roger” – VHF Radios and What to Expect From Them

VHF Radio options and the What’s, the Why’s and the How’s that make them awesome.

People get out on the water for all types of reasons. They set sail on a peaceful cruise to have just that, peace and quiet. Until they don’t and they need to talk to the outside world. We have several ways we can do this.

For the most part, we use VHF radios to talk to other people, boats and businesses that are either on or near the water. You use your VHF to call other boats in the vicinity of you when other forms of communication don’t or may not work – like a cell phone or two-way radio. If you are sailing in a highly charged regatta, you definitely want to monitor the VHF channel that race committee is using. They will be posting and commenting on anything
relevant to the regatta such as course changes and delays and everything that is important. They can’t do this over cell phones or two-ways. If you need to contact the dock master at the marina, he is probably walking the docks with his portable VHF clipped to his belt.

Two-way radios and cell phones also serve their purpose when we need to talk to others. Their major drawback is that we need to already know who we are calling (or at least know their phone number for cell phones or the exact frequency for two-ways), two-way users have to be on the same frequency as you and cell phone users must have a signal. You can’t call the bridge operator on the phone if you don’t know the phone number, but you know they are monitoring Channel 13.

Standard VHF Radio

The Standard VHF Radio

All boats longer than 20 feet are required to have a VHF radio onboard. These are the standard, go-to radio since they can really transmit over long distances (up to 10 miles or more). They have big whip antennas and serious wattage output so they can be heard for miles. Since they are hardwired to your boat, the battery lasts as long as the battery on the
boat does.

Handheld VHF Radio

The Handheld VHF Radio

This is the “little brother” version of the standard, hard mounted VHF radio. It can do just about everything the standard VHF can do, just on a smaller scale with one huge advantage over big brother – it can be carried around with you since it is small and is battery powered with a built-in antenna. The range on a handheld VHF radios are around 1 to 4 miles on flat ground (or water) versus 10 for the big guy above.

Personal Two-Way Radios

Personal Two-Way Radios

Popular with hikers and moms and dads, personal two-way radios are the ultimate in portability without worrying about cell phone service. As long as you don’t get too far away from the other handset, communicating with these little units, works only for one-to-one talking – not for broadcasting to large groups.

The Cell Phone "Radio"

The Cell Phone

The ultimate in talkability. Talk to anyone and everyone on this little device. Want to have dinner at that cool little restaurant near the docks once you get back to shore tonight. Better call and make reservations. Look up the restaurant’s phone number on your built-in browser and give them a call. What??? No service, what to do next? Cell phones offer the ultimate in communication as long as you are located near a cell tower. If you are not near a tower, you could literally be up the creek without a paddle and no way to call for help.05-vhf radio

So, now that you know the ways we, as boaters, can talk to one another; you decide you want to get a Portable VHF Radio. That’s awesome. Portable VHF’s have some uses that make the standard, built-in VHF look like Gordon Gekko’s cell phone from “Wall Street”.

So, why is a portable VHF so great?

First and foremost, it’s portable. They have rechargeable batteries that can last up to a full day or more on standby. Many built-in VHF radios aren’t that convenient to the cockpit of a boat if the boat even has a built-in VHF. They may be located in the cabin without a remote microphone near the helm. This is where a portable comes in. Because of their size, they are able to move around with the captain of the boat and always be within reach.

Need to talk to your crew while you are docking your ’51 Sou’wester? Hand the mate on lines the portable and grab the main VHF, or even another portable, and you can prevent any mishaps to your classic’s gelcoat when coming in to the docks perhaps a little hot on a windy day. The same goes for grabbing a mooring ball. It’s much easier to communicate with a portable VHF rather than yelling over engine noise. Now you can make it to happy hour at “The Boatyard” with no problems.

It’s a good idea to have a portable unit as a backup. Cell phones aren’t always reliable on the water. If there isn’t a cell tower, you’ve got no service. In another country that operates on a different cell frequency than you do; the VHF will work. As long as you are within range of another VHF, you can be heard. Remember, just because you can’t hear someone else, they may be able to hear you.

And finally, VHF’s are versatile. Say you are on a weeklong cruise and you have been given the joyful task of going ashore from your mooring to do a little provisioning for dinner but your boat mate wants to keep the dinghy “just in case.” Have him take you to the docks and take the portable VHF with you so you can call him when you are ready to be picked up. Or, to call a water taxi since he decided to take a nap.

No don’t let all the buttons and knobs on a VHF radio intimidate you. All VHF radios essentially have the same functions. You’ll want to read your manual for the specifics as they are all a little different, but they tend to work in the same way and are user-friendly once you know how it works.

Here is a list of the main functions of a handheld VHF radio:

  • Power – this powers the device on and off.
  • Push-to-Talk (PTT)– on all VHF radios, you have to push this button while talking and is usually located on the side. Just remember that you have to let go of the button after
    you say “Over” so you can hear what others are saying.
  • Volume Control – you can raise and lower the receiver volume.
  • Squelch – use this to reduce static.
  • Lock Feature – you can lock the radio to prevent accidentally hitting buttons can changing settings.
  • Often, there will also be easy access to the weather channel and channel 16.

A portable VHF radio has its place just like your regular VHF and cell phone. But knowing what it’s good for and how to use it are the key to turning your sailing and boating experiences into memories. Once you know when and how to operate your radio, you’re ready to power it on and transmit!

Roger, Roger…

Up Next, check out our other VHF Radio guide that explains HOW to communicate over the air ways.
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