VHF radio communications graphic

Marine Communications

Can you Hear Me?

Cell Phone vs. VHF Radio

Having a cell phone on board allows you to keep in touch with land-based contacts and businesses easily. They are very convenient but in some situations they shouldn't be used in place of a very high frequency (VHF) radio, the benefits of which we'll address shortly. Here are some things to consider regarding cell-phones.

  • Cell phones are less reliable on the water. Most are not water resistant, and their range is relatively short due to the proximity of land based towers and repeaters.
  • Range is further complicated by the fact that the majority of cell antenna/stations are placed and oriented with land-based use in mind, so the distance offshore that a vessel can remain in contact is frequently shorter.
  • A cell phone won't allow you to "broadcast" to several boaters at a time which is important in a true emergency.

Why a VHF Radio is Preferred

Very High Frequency (VHF) marine-band radios have been around for many years and remain the primary means of communication for vessels throughout the United States. VHF radios should be your "go-to" device in an emergency unless you are practically shouting distance from shore. The main uses of a VHF radio are:

  • Distress calling and SAFETY
  • Ship to shore communications
  • Navigation (vessels to bridges, etc.)
  • Marine operator to place calls to shore
  • NOAA Weather Broadcasts

For reliable on-the-water communications, we recommend using either hand-held or fixed-mount VHF radios. If you experience engine failure, a storm disables you, or you find yourself in a true emergency, a VHF radio can be your lifeline to help. In Coast Guard jurisdictions, VHFs are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For extra assurance, the USCG, most TowBoatU.S. and Vessel Assist towers can locate your boat by tracking your VHF signal, but they can't do that with a cell phone.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) - What Could be Easier?

A VHF radio equipped with Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, has the equivalent of a "mayday button." All new fixed-mount VHF radios come with this one-button feature, which is usually labeled "DISTRESS." When activated, it automatically broadcasts an encoded distress call that will be picked up by all nearby vessels equipped with DSC as well as US Coast Guards vessels and their shore stations. If the radio is interfaced with your GPS, it will also automatically broadcast the distressed vessel's position. To use DSC, you must obtain an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number. You may do so at this web address: http://www.boatus.com/mmsi . There are other great features of the DSC radio such as calling or hailing a fellow boater or a group of boaters that might be traveling or fishing together. You can do this as long as you know their DSC numbers, with the push of a button instead of having to hail by speaking into the microphone. For more on DSC radios, their features and installation, watch the BoatUS Foundation tutorial called, "Can you Hear Me?" http://www.boatus.org/dsc/player.html.

Going the Distance - EPIRBs and PLBs

If you are planning an offshore voyage, you need to know VHF radios and cellular telephones are limited in range, usually no more than 15 to 25 miles from shore. Emergency beacons.If you needed help or assistance in an emergency, a satellite Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) may be your only hope for rescue.

These beacons are part of a worldwide distress system and are designed to quickly and reliably alert rescue personnel, indicate an accurate position, and guide rescue units to the distress scene when all other communications fail. When activated, these units transmit a unique signal that incorporates your location and in some cases, specific information about your vessel. By law, these beacons must be registered so rescue personnel have reliable information. PLBs are also useful for hiking and other adventures so vessel information can be changed to reflect another activity with a different description.

Since these units can cost hundreds of dollars, the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety rents EPIRBs and PLBs at a mere fraction of the cost of ownership and makes them available to any boater seeking the peace-of-mind and emergency beacon provided. www.boatus.org/epirb/