Cell phone or VHF radio – what do boaters really need to have aboard for both convenience and emergency communications? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer depends on the type of boating you do, where you do it and what kind of information you want or need to convey.
Cell phones are great when boating in a good coverage area such as in harbors or on inland waterways. They’re good for lengthy private conversations or making dinner or slip reservations. There’s no special protocol for using one and since everyone has one, there’s no additional expense. However, cell phones aren’t as effective on the water as VHF radios which are specifically designed for boating and a potential emergency.
Most VHF (very high frequency) radios have added benefits over phones such as being fully waterproof, having weather channels to receive a forecast (without relying on an app), and featuring a crew overboard (MOB) button to mark the exact spot if someone falls in or a DSC button (digital selective calling) for a mass alert at the touch of a button.
Who needs a VHF radio
If you boat coastally or offshore, chances are your cell phone won’t have coverage and that’s where the VHF radio shines. If you need to make a call for assistance, you should be able to reach the US Coast Guard or an on-water towing firm for help. VHF radios work line-of-sight so they have limited range and won’t work around curvy coastlines, but they will reach boaters in the area who can relay your message.
VHF radios can also be used for non-emergency communications like finding friends in a nearby anchorage or setting a time to rendezvous. Remember however, that unlike with a cell phone, other boaters can hear your VHF call so be prudent with the information you share. Don’t give away tips on where the fish are biting or your credit card details.
How to use a VHF radio
There is a protocol for using the VHF. First, Channel 16 is dedicated to distress and hailing calls, not lengthy conversations. Turn the radio on, push the button to talk, say the name of the party you’re calling (the name of another boat or the USCG, for example) three times and then say your vessel name once and “over”. Next, once you connect with the other party (and it’s not an emergency call) you need to choose another frequency to continue the conversation. For example, you can say “Let’s switch to Channel 68.” Be specific with the information you want to convey and say numbers one digit at a time for clarity.
Don’t tie up Channel 16 with chit chat. You can rest assured that the Coast Guard will cut in and remind you of that. In an emergency, say May Day three time and the name of your vessel. When the Coast Guard answers, tell them the nature of your emergency, your location, the number of passengers, a description of the vessel and any medical issues or injuries. You can make a Pan Pan call if a situation is urgent but not an emergency or if you want to convey information that may help other boaters. A Securite is put out only by the Coast Guard as an advisory.
When under way, keep your VHF radio on and monitor Channel 16 to receive information or to render assistance to other boaters. You can do neither with a cell phone.
Signaling for help on a boat
A quick way to signal for help is the VHF DSC feature that, at the push of one button, alerts boats in your area to your distress call and relays your GPS location. DSC contacts authorities as well as boaters near you who are the closest and most likely to be able to render assistance quickly. Some other ways to ask for help include visual distress signals such as flares, a flashing white light, orange smoke, an orange and black distress flag and waving your arms. Audible methods include continuously sounding the horn and calling on a cell phone or ship’s radio.
An affordable and convenient solution
When boating without a VHF radio, you’re taking a risk, especially offshore. Today’s radios are inexpensive and even the fixed mount models don’t take up much room. There’s really no reason not to have both a cell phone and a VHF aboard to double your chances of communicating effectively for convenience and emergency uses.