Onboard Communication Tools For Your Boat

Communications equipment is critical gear for boating safety – being able to call for towing assistance or requesting help and/or rescue in an emergency is a must. The type, sophistication and cost of these tools vary so it’s important to match the level of equipment to the type of boating you do. Lake boating on a wake boat has different needs than offshore cruising and although you don’t want to be caught unprepared, you also don’t want to overspend on something you don’t need. The boating sweet spot is trailerable boats up to 40 feet so for the purposes of this guide that’s where we’ll focus. However, we’ll give a nod to equipment for more advanced needs farther down. Options for onboard communications tools include:

VHF Radios and Satellite Phones Onboard communication tools are an important aspect of safe boating. Photo by C. Ryan McVinney for YachtWorld.

VHF Radios

A VHF radio is the most reliable way to communicate when you need help on a boat. In this day and age some small boat owners may not see the need for a VHF radio (very high frequency radio) since they already have a cell phone onboard. However, counting on a phone may not always be safe because they aren’t 100-percent reliable. Service can be spotty in some waterways, batteries die, and calls sometimes don’t go through, not to mention that cellphones are poor swimmers.

VHF radios come in fixed-mount or handheld versions. Fixed VHFs usually have more features and up to 25 watts of power, and they output their signal farther (approximately 25 miles) especially with a remote antenna mounted up high. Antenna height is key to gaining range and the antenna height of the party receiving the communications matters, too. When trying to contact a Coast Guard station (which will usually have a huge antenna reaching far up into the sky) from a boat with an antenna 15 or 20 feet above the water, for example, it’s not unusual for range to be extended 30, 40, or even 50 miles or more – although exact range will always depend on additional factors like atmospheric conditions.

boat in ocean
With a VHF antenna mounted high above the water, a fixed-mount VHF offers dozens of miles of range. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Most handhelds have 1 or 5-watt power output and can reach 3 to 8 miles when used 5 to 10 feet above the waterline. (Expect a battery life of 8 to 20 hours depending on use.) Handhelds have the benefit of being independent of your boat’s electrical system in case you lose power, and they can be used in the dinghy while exploring or visiting other vessels. (Technically, you need a special license to use one ashore). But their limited range means having a fixed-mount aboard is always a good move. Serious mariners usually have both, so they always have a back-up.

Both fixed and handheld models offer boater-specific functionality that phones just don’t have. Safety is the key justification for having a VHF radio aboard but since they’re specific to boating communications they give you a number of added key benefits. Here are seven ways a VHF radio improves on cellphone communications and how one may help you stay in touch or even save your life.

  1. Connectivity
  2. Digital Selective Calling (DSC)
  3. Automatic Identification System (AIS)
  4. Weather Alerts and Forecasts
  5. Weatherproofing
  6. Affordability
  7. Warranty

Connectivity

Channel 16 is dedicated to distress and hailing calls so if you run into trouble, you can connect automatically to maritime assistance agencies like the Coast Guard or a marine towing service. You can also stay connected to boating friends or those in the area who may be able to render assistance since they can listen in on the conversation. Plus, you can share fishing tips or ask if anyone has spotted your kids running off with the dinghy. Keep in mind that your conversations on the radio aren’t private and that when you use a channel, others cannot use it. So, this isn’t for idle chitchat about last night’s game.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC)

The DSC feature (built into all VHF models since 1999) is a function that alerts the Coast Guard and all boats in your area to your distress call at the push of a button. GPS-enabled, the DSC call allows others to pinpoint your location even if you’re unable to verbalize it. It also transmits critical data like the size and type of boat you’re on to the Coast Guard automatically.

vhf radio
Flip up the little red cover and press the button to send a DSC call, and the Coast Guard knows your exact location in a heartbeat. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

Automatic Identification System (AIS)

AIS is a vessel traffic service (VTS) used for monitoring marine traffic in much the same way that airport air traffic control monitors aircraft. An AIS transponder broadcasts a ship’s information, including the ship’s name, port of origin, size, speed, heading and more, over VHF frequencies. Updated constantly, this information can be easily viewed by any other vessel, bridge or marina equipped with a designated AIS unit, as well as on computers, smartphones and other mobile devices connected to the internet. AIS is the preeminent collision avoidance system on the water. Some VHF radios that are AIS-enabled allow you to track these boats and that comes in handy in low visibility conditions like fog or nighttime.

Weather Alerts and Forecasts

You can receive real-time NOAA and SAME alerts for upcoming weather and general weather forecasts usually found on VHF channels 1, 2 and 3. Some radios have up to 10 weather channels. If you’re out of cell range, a good weather forecast can make the difference between a great day of fishing and an ordeal.

Weatherproofing

Cellphones don’t like water and they don’t float. However, VHF radios are built to take rain, splashes and in serious cases, even a dunking. Most fixed mount radios are waterproof to certain standards including IPX 6 (splash-proof), IPX 7 (dunking to 1 meter) or IPX8 (fully immersed in more than 1 meter). This makes them ideal for mounting under a T-top or on a center console dash, and some handhelds even float so if you lose you grip on one, you can circle back and pick it up.

Affordability

Today’s VHFs (both handheld and fixed mount) are also sleeker so they don’t eat up a lot of dash or pocket space and they go easy on the wallet. Value model handhelds start below $100 and fixed mount models run $130 to $800 depending on features.

Warranty

Finally, most radios come with a 3-year standard warranty. Try getting that from Apple.

Cell Phones

Let’s face it, we all have them and most of us spend far too long staring at them every day. Therefore the most compelling case for using a cellphone for your onboard communication device is that everyone onboard already has one. If you’re out wakesurfing and there’s an emergency aboard, your best chance of getting assistance will likely be via a phone call if within range. If surrounding boats aren’t equipped with VHFs, then it won’t help you to have a radio either.

Cellphones are also versatile. You can check weather, tides, and currents or use fishing and navigation boating apps. You can also take pictures, check in with others, and call to make reservations at a marina or dockside restaurant. Once out of range however, you may be out of luck.

Since cellphones are so tempting to use for things other than communication, it is key to bring along an extra batteries and chargers so you have juice if and when you need it. Most modern boats have USB connectors for charging but for older boats that have 12V sockets, bring an old-school car adapter.

Satellite Messengers

For more remote excursions and voyaging where there may not be many other boaters or cell coverage, satellite messengers are a good option. Units like the inReach, Iridium GO! or SPOT can send SOS messages and in most cases have text-messaging ability, depending on the model. You can communicate with people back home to say you’re ok and relay a GPS position, or tell them not to worry if you’re running late. And if you press the SOS button, the authorities are alerted to your exact location via GPS.

These have become incredibly popular in recent years, for several reasons. First, you can drop one in your boat bag and carry it between boats, or put it in your pocket and take it hiking, biking, or just about anywhere, because they’re incredibly compact and take up half as much space as a cell phone. That also makes them ideal for kayaking or stepping off your cruiser and into the dinghy. Second, being able to send and receive text messages as well as sending an SOS allows for boat-to-boat or boat-to-land communication virtually anywhere on the face of the planet. And third, satellite messengers have become shockingly inexpensive and $250 to $400 is all it takes to get a fully functional unit.

big fish out at sea
You’ll be late getting back to the dock because you tied into a big catch? With a satellite messenger, you can let the family know and eliminate unnecessary worrying. Photo via Lenny Rudow.

However, satellite messengers work on subscription plans, ranging from $10 to $50, usually paid monthly. So, you’ll have a recurring, albeit relatively low, expense. Some people also point to the reporting system as a potential downside when compared to using some other options, because your SOS message goes to a third party before being relayed to the authorities. While this could cause a slight delay in getting the message through, in practice services like the International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which are staffed 24/7, have proven completely reliable. In fact this can also be a positive factor since they can alert multiple agencies and/or different ones depending on your location and activity.

Satellite Phones (Sat Phones) & SSB Radios

For bluewater cruising or extended stays in remote locations, you’ll want satellite communications that are more versatile and can handle voice and data transmissions.

Satellite phone

Satellite phones (often shortened to “Sat Phones”) from Iridium, Globalstar and Inmarsat are quite reliable and some can even connect to your laptop to transmit data such as email. But, they don’t come cheap and must have a subscription plan that can get very pricey. And calling for help will be a point-to-point communication rather than an activation of COSPASS-SARSAT, the international satellite system for search and rescue (SAR), which in the U.S. is monitored by NOAA. Nor do they connect automatically to the Coast Guard, so you’ll want to make sure that number is in the speed dial list.

Single Sideband radio (SSB)

SSB radios are used by long-distance cruisers for regular as well as emergency communications. Their greatest advantage for fleets or cruisers is that you can participate on nets of multiple users and learn about weather, good provisioning spots, or problem areas to avoid. With SSB, a rescue may be launched by a nearby vessel that was listening in rather than the Coast Guard thousands of miles away. Unlike HAM radio, SSB doesn’t require a license to use but it can take some training as it isn’t always intuitive unlike a straight forward satellite phone.

EPIRBs & Personal Locator Beacons

Finally, we have dedicated safety survival devices for offshore work. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) help locate a vessel or crewmember in distress. The signal is then transmitted to the nearest earth station, which contacts a local Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) or SAR agency.

large ocean going boats
Large boats that regularly go far out into the ocean almost always are outfitted with an EPIRB. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

EPIRBs

EPIRBs operate on 406 MHz, are waterproof, float and some even have a built in GPS, making them GEPIRBs. They are registered to the vessel. When triggered, they sent an automatic SOS along with position data to the authorities. EPIRBS are considered extraordinarily reliable, and are credited with saving thousands of lives. They are fairly expensive (figure on spending over $500 and as much as $1,000), require regular maintenance, and are mostly limited to coastal and offshore use. The biggest downside with an EPIRB is that it doesn’t allow for two-way communications.

PLBs

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a small radio beacon that initiates a search and rescue effort if activated and they’re registered to a person. PLBs work on either a 406MHz frequency, 121.5MHz, VHF DSC and/or AIS and there are a number of manufacturers so you’ll see brands like ACR, Kannad, McMurdo and OceanSignal. These units are waterproof and purpose-designed to attach to your clothing or PFD so they’re always with you and ready to work, which is good since accidents don’t happen on schedule. If you’re in the water with an activated PLB, try to keep it above the surface and pointing at the sky. Don’t turn off your PLB to save battery life. This can interfere with SAR efforts. Expect to pay around $250 to $500 for a PLB and like EPIRBS, note that they do not provide two-way communications.

Both EPIRBs and PLBs come with a long-lasting lithium battery that remains dormant until activated. Once in use, batteries are generally good for 24 hours of operation in colder temperatures but may last 5-6 hours longer in milder climates.

The Bottom Line

For 90% of recreational boaters, a cellphone and VHF radio are all that’s required for both safety and effective communication. For the odd trek off the beaten path, a satellite messenger is a great option. And for the few that venture far, the choices are many and reliable.

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to Boats.com and YachtWorld.com, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site, TalkoftheDock.com.

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