The Case For The VHF Radio
Most of us carry cell phones on our boats to keep in touch with land-based contacts and businesses easily. As convenient as they are, they shouldn’t be used in place of a very high frequency (VHF) radio. Here are some drawbacks connected with cell phones aboard boats.
- Most are not water resistant, and their range is relatively short.
- Most cell antenna/stations are placed and oriented to favor land-based use.
- A cell phone is point to point; thus, it won’t allow you to “broadcast” to all boats in range, which is vital in a true emergency.
Why The VHF Radio?
Very High Frequency (VHF) marine-band radios are the primary means of communication for vessels throughout the United States, commonly used for:
- Distress calling
- Reporting emergencies and hazardous conditions
- Ship to shore communications
- Navigation (calling bridge masters, etc.)
- Marine operator for placing calls to shore
- NOAA weather broadcasts
VHF radios may be hand-held or fixed-mount radios. If you experience or witness a marine emergency, a VHF radio is the fastest and most reliable way to bring help. The USCG monitors the marine VHF band 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, the USCG, most TowBoatUS and Vessel Assist towers can locate your boat by tracking your VHF signal. This is something impossible to do with a cell phone.
Digital Selective Calling (DSC)
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 Guard 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 for free through USPS.
With a DSC equipped VHF radio you can hail a fellow skipper, or a group of boats that might be cruising or fishing together, as long as you know their DSC numbers. The hail goes out with the push of a button.
Want To Learn More?
USPS has a few ways to get up to speed on VHF radio communications. One is a seminar on the basics of marine radios.There is also an Elective Course, “Marine Communication Systems.” This course covers the various kinds of marine digital communication systems, including VHF radios, Single Side Band for longer distance communication, and satellite systems. The scope is for coastwise through transoceanic voyaging. Topics include:
- Radio history, frequencies, and VHF communications
- Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS)
- FCC rules and radio licenses
- Radiotelephone operating procedures
- Long-range radio communications
- Radio maintenance
- Other marine communication systems
This course is usually completed in seven two-hour sessions, followed by an exam. You can find more about it here.