Let's get the cell phone question out of the way right off the bat. If you spend most of your time on the water within 10 to 30 miles of land and you need to stay in touch with friends, family, and your business, a cell phone is necessary and the best way to do this. If you are offshore, then you will want a satellite communication system. However, a cell phone and/or Sat Com system cannot be your sole means of communication. You must have a two-way marine radio to talk with other boats; and to monitor weather and the distress channels (9 and 16).
There are three types of two-way marine radios available: VHF, Single Sideband (SSB), and Citizen Band (CB). The CB radios have a very limited range and are not recommended for serious marine communication. With a maximum output power of four watts, they cannot be counted on to call for and receive help. Also the 40 CB channels are usually very busy with land-based communications. The only reason to have a CB on board is to communicate with friends on nearby land who do not have a cell phone or VHF radio. Most lobster fishermen in Maine use them to talk between the local boats and their home station.
The VHF radio The VHF radio offers the best value and noise-free communication for line-of-sight distances of up to 40 to 60 nautical miles between ship-to-shore stations and up to 20 nautical miles between ships (depends on antenna heights). Don't expect to reach shore stations beyond 40 nautical miles unless their antennas are mounted on very high towers. VHF is the primary two-way radio you should have on board. The VHF fixed-mount radios have 25 watts of power and while costing a bit more than a good quality CB, they offer a whole lot more capability, reliability, and quality.
VHF marine radios are also available as a portable handheld and are an ideal back up to your fixed-mount VHF. They are available with power outputs ranging from one to five watts and can transmit up to 10 nautical miles. In the event of a complete power loss, the battery-operated handheld VHF could be a lifesaver. Besides providing a back up to your fixed-mount VHF, it will also function as a piece of safety equipment for your life raft. Do not plan on using the portable VHF radio as your only means of two-way communication at sea. Many sailors also use them to maintain contact between themselves and their boat when they are ashore or in the dinghy.
The SSB radio Marine Single Sideband (SSB) radios provide long-range communication and can cost up to 10 times as much as a VHF radio. SSB radios operate at a power output of 150 watts and have a transmission range of 6,000 miles under the right conditions. SSB radios can operate in both the medium frequency (MF) and high frequency (HF) bands. They are also capable of accessing marine operators for normal ship to shore telephone calls and weather fax. SSB radios, like the marine VHF radio, allow unrestricted party-line communication between ships, ship to shore, and ship to aircraft. Some SSB radios are capable of legal operation on both marine and HAM radio frequencies. However, there are big differences in licenses and permitted use.
Choosing the right communication system for your boat is primarily a matter of cost effectiveness, your communication requirements, and area of operation. For most sailors a fixed-station marine VHF radio with only US channels will suffice. Of course, you will also want to bring your cell phone along. If you are going long distance cruising then a marine VHF with US and international channels will be required. Most cell phones today can be used anywhere in the US, so bring one along. Add an SSB, portable VHF radio, and an Epirb, if you are going well offshore. Also a Sat Com phone is an expensive extra, but may be well worth the cost if you need to avoid party-line calls on the SSB.
Marine Radios Overview
Port operations and commercial Port ops USCG VTS in SeattleIntership safety only Commercial working ch.Comercl. intership only Boater calling, comercl. & non- comercl. Comercl. working ch Commercial, VTS in selected areasPort operations. VTS in selected areasIntership navigation safety (bridge to bridge)Port operations VTS in selected areas Environmental (rcv. only); Class C Epirbs Distress, safety, & calling. listening watchState control Commercial Commercial Port operations (duplex) Port operations U.S. Coast Guard only USCG liaison & maritime safety info U.S. Coast Guard only Public use (marine operator) Public use (marine operator) Public use (marine operator)Public use (marine operator) Public use (marine operator)Port operations & commercialPort operations Port operations Comercl intership only Non-commercialNon-commercialDigital selective calling onlyNon-commercial Non-commercial (intership only)Port operationsPort operations Port operations (intership only)Non-commercialCommercial Commercial U.S. Government only. EPA opsU.S. Government only U.S. Coast Guard only Public use (marine operator) Public use (marine operator) Public use (marine operator)Public use (marine operator) Public use only near Canadian border Commercial intership only