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 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
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