Loaded with three kids and an adult, the little rigid inflatable zipped through the harbor, leaving the mothership astern, and then made a soft landing at the dinghy dock. The party secured their boat and disembarked. Then the father spoke up: "All right, you guys stick together and give me a call on 71 when you get ready to head back." He patted his chest where a diminutive VHF radio hung on a lanyard and then strode off into the surrounding village as the kids scurried down the wharf in the other direction.
This is a scene that's being played out in parallel fashion throughout marinas and harbors all over the US and elsewhere. So, is there anything wrong with this picture? Well, yes, potentially two things: One, if this were taking place in a foreign port and these cruisers were Americans, then these folks would need to possess what sailors call an "individual license" (or what the Federal Communications Commission calls a "Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit"). And two, there's really no reason to tie up the VHF airways with shoreside communication traffic. These folks would be better off with a set of FRS units (see sidebar).
Back in 1996, the FCC relaxed the regulations for VHF broadcasting in the US and the cruising sailor's life changed in a fundamental way. Since then, the owners of private recreational vessels don't need a license to operate a VHF radio unless their boats are certified by the US Coast Guard to carry more than six passengers for hire or they're operating in foreign waters. The FCC's changes have their up and down sides: they've eliminated some hassles for recreational sailors—no more call signs—but they've also made it easier for anyone with the financial wherewithal to own a VHF unit, and consequently it's rare to find a frequency where you're not vying with some other boat for air time. In our neck of the woods, that's usually Bubba chattering nonstop about what fish are biting and what aren't. Nonetheless, owning a VHF radio and using it properly is an important element of safety while in coastal and inshore waters. VHF radio frequencies are monitored 24 hours a day by the US Coast Guard, making them essential for emergency situations in these waters.
We can't really do much about the growing lack of proper on-air etiquette on the water these days, but we can offer some insight into what VHF units might make the best sense given the kind of sailing you do. There are, of course, a number of important factors to consider when you set out to purchase a handheld VHF radio. Battery capacity, transmission range, case design, and water resistance are some of the more important ones. What follows is a rundown regarding the things you need to know to assess the market properly and end up with the radio that's best for your purposes.
Most every sailor will appreciate a handheld VHF radio that's not only water-resistant, but actually waterproof. This is something that not every manufacturer can claim, so the wise buyer will ask about this feature ("submersible" is usually an accurate term; "watertight" is occasionally misleading). If you're still uncertain how a particular unit will stand up to a good dousing even after you get the lowdown, you should find out how that particular model has fared in previous testing. (The editors at Practical Sailor conducted comprehensive tests on most models of handheld VHFs recently and published the results in their May 1, 2002, issue. The publication didn't test the Garmin 725, but we have good evidence that this model is sufficiently waterproof for most sailors' needs.)
You'll also want to know what's powering the unit you're looking at. In the world of portable, rechargeable electronics, Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) batteries have become pretty standard. There really isn't a downside to them, but inroads in this sector have led to the development of superior forms of batteries—namely Lithium Ion (Li-on) and Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH)—that are smaller and have improved capacity for their size.
Of course what really matters with batteries is the capacity because it doesn't help if your VHF is powered by a fancy battery, but you find that the LED screen has gone blank just as you're approaching an unfamiliar marina. Ideally, you want higher battery capacity, which most often translates to higher cost, but not in every case. Standard's HX460 has nearly twice the battery capacity of its less expensive sister, the HX260, but Icom's least expensive model—which usually sells at SailNet for $145.00—has only marginally less battery capacity than the company's mid-range unit, which usually sells for $160.00. Some handheld VHFs are offered with AA battery packs (some standard, some optional), which are handy because they give you additional operating time, and in some cases these packs have the potential to boost the transmission power of the unit.
Also, since most sailboats are equipped with DC power, having a 12-volt battery charger that's adapted for your unit is a very useful feature. Several manufacturers include this as standard equipment, and we think it's a worthwhile option. One piece of advice here: you'll want to know if you can use the unit while it's charging; some you can and others you can't. For those sailors who plan to take their handheld units home, there's also the option of getting a rapid charger that will work on AC power.
It's important to note that the effective range of your handheld VHF isn't only related to its battery power. Due to the relatively low height of the antennae on most handheld VHF radios, the transmission range will generally not exceed six miles. You can, however, increase the range substantially by using an external antenna, and many units are fit with an adapting port specifically for this purpose—another feature we'd recommend sailboat owners to consider.
With almost every item you buy for your boat, form should follow function, and we think this is particularly applicable to handheld VHF radios. Low-profile knobs and flexible antennae are now standard with most units on the market, but you'll want to know how a screen display works in broad daylight, and whether the squelch controls are easily operated. It's also good to be aware of the warranty on the unit. Almost every VHF manufacturer stands behind its products with a warranty—some are two-year plans and some three. And you should find out if the seller offers the option of enhanced coverage by way of additional product protection plans. (SailNet offers one, two, or three-year options on most handheld VHFs.)
Whether you're interested in a handheld VHF as the primary means of communication for your boat, or just as a backup for your stationary unit, it does pay to read the fine print, so look closely, and keep in touch.
Fooling Around with FRSIf you've been to an amusement park lately, or any other venue that caters to family entertainment, no doubt you've witnessed kids scurrying about babbling into what appear to be walkie-talkies. That's pretty much what they are, but these devices, called FRS units (Family Radio Service) have become more sophisticated over time and more popular since they were introduced to the mass market in 1997. Since then, almost every electronics company on the planet has introduced its own take on the device. That's good news for families, and for sailors as well.
The FCC has set aside 14 frequencies for FRS units, most of which operate on a half watt of power and can communicate up to two miles without significant obstructions. Some units offer a voice scramble feature so only others with the same model can receive communication from that unit. Others have ring and beep functions to alert the user to an incoming call. And most have battery packs that will allow the FRS to work for prolonged periods.
These items can be very handy for a sailing crew on shore that needs a way of contacting its members, or for a skipper who has a crew member up the mast executing repairs. Prices for these units range from $40.00 a pair to $200.00 depending upon the bells and whistles included. If you opt to buy a couple of these, keep one caveat in mind: all the federal literature warns that the use of profanity is illegal on FRS channels. So save the invective for your face-to-face encounters.
VHF Radio: Usage and Etiquette by Sue & Larry
Marine VHF Radio Forecasts by Michael Carr
VHF Duplex Channels by Tom Wood
Sailnet Store Section: VHF Radios