Handheld VHF Radios - PassageMaker
Why you need one and what features to look for

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Sail Magazine and can be found online on our sister site, Sail Magazine, here.

Icom M-25 handheld VHF.

Icom M-25 handheld VHF.

For many sailors, cell phones have become their primary means of both ship-to-shore 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.

Being on a boat, opt for a handheld VHF that is at the very least highly water resistant. We prefer one that floats!

Being on a boat, opt for a handheld VHF that is at the very least highly water resistant. We prefer one that floats!

Features

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 to 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.

A few different VHF radios that are available on the market.

A few different VHF radios that are available on the market.

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-to-read 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 Li-Ion battery with a 3-hour quick charger and Alkaline battery tray. (Yeah, it also floats.)

Note, however, that when it comes to VHF radios, less is sometimes more. If you’re in the market for a radio that will serve as, say, the sole means of communicating and navigation 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 capacity 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.

RESOURCES

Cobra Electronics cobra.com

ICOM America icomamerica.com

Lowrance/Simrad lowrance.com

Standard Horizon standardhorizon.com

Uniden uniden.com

West Marine westmarine.com

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Sail Magazine and can be found online on our sister site, Sail Magazine, here.

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