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).
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.
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.
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 FRS
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