There are a lot of things you need to take with you while going offshore. However, there is nothing more important than an adequate means of communication. You don’t want to end up with no help whenever you are in distress, do you? Which is why a VHF marine radio is an absolute must.
VHF marine radios have the ability to contact the shore from up to 50 miles away. It’s the best possible solution of contacting the Coast Guard or other rescue agencies. Not only that, but you can also contact other boats that are offshore, check weather reports, or contact bridge or lock operators.
I don’t suppose I have to tell you how marine VHF radios work, but just to be on the safe side, such a device relies on radio waves. However, line of sight is a very important aspect. If anything disrupts the line of sight, like islands for example, the message won’t push through. Also, the bigger the antenna, the stronger the signal. Make sure to pay attention to all these details when purchasing a marine VHF radio.
But why not a cell phone?
Replacing a marine radio with a mobile phone is one of the worst ideas you could possibly have. Mobile networks are unable to provide coverage very far from shore. In some places the signal is nonexistent.
Furthermore, how can you possibly contact all vessels nearby with a cellphone? A marine VHF is far more efficient. You can transmit a message to everyone who is close by. At the same time. You can’t do that with a cell phone. Not to mention that mobile phones don’t have weather reports or DSC features, and they are not a waterproof.
Types of VHF marine radios
There are two kinds of marine radios, the fixed-mount, and the handheld radio, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. They are both useful and do their job, but there will always be a better one. In order to make a smart choice, here is what you need to know about each of them.
The fixed-mount VHF marine radio
This kind is permanently mounted on your boat and wired to the vessel’s electrical system. It’s usually placed at the helm, but it’s not a must. It provides a higher power output, and the range is bigger than with handheld radios. Available features differ from one model to the other, but here are a few you should look at.
- Range and power – a fixed-mount VHF marine radio should have a power output from 1 to at least 25 watts. More watts mean that you can transmit further away from your position, whereas one watt will allow you to contact boats that are close to you. There are models that provide a high wattage, so the range extends to up to 50 miles.
- The antenna – it is very importantto achieve the best range, which is why you want your antenna to be installed as high as possible. You can set it up on the superstructure of a powerboat, or if you have a sailboat, you can mount the antenna on the mast. Go for anything with a dB gain from 3 to 6.
- Dual station – this is a relatively popular feature that allows you to use the radio from two different rooms. You can install a microphone in a different place inside your vessel and operate the stations from the helm unit. You can also use the system as an intercom.
- The hailer option – this is not something you find in cheap models. With a hailer, you can broadcast to other boats nearby, just like handlers. However, you will need to buy and install additional hardware, which is an external waterproof speaker. Some models have the Listen-Back feature. That means you are able to convert speakers into microphones. That way, it will be easier to hear fog signals in the distance (that’s just an example).
The handheld VHF marine radio
Basically, this is the portable version of the previous type. It doesn’t have to stay in a fixed position, you can just carry it around with you. Technology made sure that this kind of marine radios has pretty much the same features as fixed-mounts.
Features are nor scarce. A handheld VHF marine radio can include DSC capability, GPS, a distress button, noise canceling, waterproof system, and many others. It’s up to you which one you choose. The drawback is that the range is lower that with a fixed-mount, but you have benefits as well. For example, if the boat’s electrical system crashes, you can still contact the Coast Guard or other vessels. Plus, they are portable. Here is what you should pay attention to when you purchase such a VHF marine radio.
- Power and range – a handheld marine radio will not be able to reach 25 watts, but only six. There is a way of boosting your range, but you have to install a larger aftermarket antenna. If you want your message to reach further, stand as high on your boat as possible. Usually, the range varies from three to eight miles.
- Battery life – the bigger the radio, the larger the battery. Weigh your options and seek for a VHF radio with an extended battery life. Some models can run up to 20 hours.
- Buoyancy – it is important that your unit floats. Why? Because if you accidentally drop it in the water, do you really want to buy another one? Also, if your ship sinks, a sinking radio is useless. You cannot send a distress signal. That is why a buoyant radio could possibly save your life.
- Display – you have to choose among a dot matrix or LCD. The latter looks like a clock radio, it cannot generate images, while the former can provide a screen like the one on your smartphone or TV. It’s not an important feature, but a dot matrix can provide a pleasant experience.
What is the best marine VHF radio?
Making a decision may prove to be difficult because there are many models out there. But as long as you know exactly what you want, choosing a unit should be relatively straightforward.
Uniden UM380 Fixed Mount VHF Marine Radio
With this fixed-mount VHF marine radio, you will be able to contact USA, Canadian, and International marine channels. It provides a 25-watt power, which will ensure a high range. Actually, it’s as high as it gets.
The unit is waterproof and will survive the harsh conditions of the sea environment. The circuit is coated so that moisture and saltiness cannot affect its functionality. The design is simple, but the display is orange backlit. You can see what’s on it when is dark as well. Visibility is critical, especially in some circumstances, for emergencies and such.
As for the features, this marine VHF radio doesn’t lack what you need. It comes with a memory channel scan and a triple watch feature. There is a Hi/Lo power switch that allows you to adjust the output volume. If you are having an emergency, such as bad weather, there is a code for your particular location which alerts you about the severe conditions, not only where you are, but in the areas near you. The unit uses an S.A.M.E.Weather Alert feature that makes all that possible.
The Uniden VHF marine radio allows you to assign names to all marine channels. This feature helps you not to mix them up. When you are experiencing an emergency, the last thing you need is not knowing who to contact. The unit comes with a full class D DSC capability. It includes a Distress button, Position SendRequest, and you can call for help by pressing a single button. The high-quality transceiver provides a clear communication, all while preventing and rejecting interferences. Last, but not least, the Uniden marine VHF radio also provides GPS data. Click here to read more reviews and buy on Amazon.
Cobra Electronics MR F45-D Marine VHF Radio
The Cobra marine radio is a full function DSC VHF radio. You can change the power output from 1 to 25 watts. Short and long range contact will be very easy to achieve. It includes a Dual Watch feature, an adjustable display backlight and function keys on the microphone. It is completely waterproof and will handle very well the harsh marine environment.
The Digital Selective Calling ensures that you can send a distress signal by simply touching a button. That will also allow the exchange of position information with other stations. If you are aboatenthusiast, then you know how reassuring it is to have such a button on board. Other passengers will feel safe as well knowing that there is a button they can press to call for help.
The unit can access channels from USA, Canada, and International marine areas. The radio gives you the opportunity to operate on any of the three different channel maps. As far as weather reports are concerned, the Cobra marine radio gives you instant access to all hazards and weather information every day of the week. It will even alert you visually and with sound if there are severe weather conditions close by.
What you should know is that the Cobra marine VHF radio does not come with an antenna. You should buy this separately. This is not necessarily a bad thing. That way you can purchase the antenna you want, depending on what boat you have and where you are planning to take it. Click here to read more reviews and buy on Amazon.
Standard Horizon GX1700W Marine VHF Radio
What you will love about this model is the internal 12 channel GPS built into the front panel. You don’t need to wire the radio to a GPS for DSC. Conventional marine VHF radios require that you do that, which may be a bit tricky if you don’t have the necessary experience.
The power output reaches 25 watts, and with the right antenna, you may be able to boost that signal. The DSC includes position sharing, waypoint navigation, and distress calling. All that can be achieved by pushing one button. Also, this model is able to enter and save up to 100 waypoints, which you can select and navigate to by using a compass display that shows you the boat’s SOG, COG, bearing and distance to the waypoint you chose.
The design of this unit is very sleek and compact, which make its installation very easy. It measures 3.5 inches in depth, which is only a half than other models. The microphone has function buttons such as noise canceling and up/down channel. You can customize the channels by giving them names, and the display is an oversized dot matrix which ensures maximum visibility.
Just like most VHF marine radios, this one does not come with an antenna. That is mostly because not all antennas are compatible with everybody’s boats. Sailing boats and powerboats are very different from this point of view, which is why you are required to buy the antenna you need. Click here to read more reviews and buy on Amazon.
As you probably noticed, I did not go for any handheld marine VHF radio for the simple reason that they are not as reliable. Their range is a lot lower than the fixed-mount can provide, and you need to charge them every time. Among the three products I talked about, I believe that the Standard Horizon is the best marine VHF radio. It’s thekind of product that provides all the features you need, and let’s not forget that this company has been making marine radios for quite some time. Experience counts for something.
Feeling safe while you are at sea is not something to be joked about. You are in the middle of nowhere, with nobody around. Being able to contact someone if you get in trouble is of a higher value than you may think, which is why a marine VHF radio is a must on every single boat. You never know, but oneday, such a device might as well save your life. Click here to buy on Amazon
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