Ranking The Best Handheld VHF Marine Radios On The Market
Standard Horizon HX870 Handheld VHF Marine Radio
Baofeng BF-F8HP Handheld Radio
ICOM IC-M93D Marine VHF Handheld Radio
A handheld marine radio is an essential piece of equipment for boaters heading out to sea. They can be used to contact the Coast Guard in case of an emergency, for communication with other vessels, and for regular information updates and weather reports. A handheld VHF radio is what you need!
VHF stands for Very High Frequency, and it operates on channels used specifically for marine applications. VHF radios come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from fixed, hard-wired units to lightweight, portable handheld radios. All vessels should have a radio installed, but having a handheld model that uses battery power is what you need in an emergency. That’s why we recommend having both kinds.
A portable, handheld radio can be used when the power is out, if you have to abandon ship, and usually, they’re designed to withstand serious punishment. Many of them are shockproof and waterproof, and made from materials that can withstand harsh marine environments. In fact, some can even float!
If you’re next voyage is taking you out to sea, don’t even think about leaving the marina without one of these on-board!
Here are the best handheld marine radio units you can buy!
Handheld VHF Radio Shopping: A Buying Guide
Buying a new handheld marine radio might seem like a straightforward task, but there are a number of important things to keep in mind when you’re shopping around. We’ve put together this little guide to make sure that you invest your money in the right tool for your needs. Here are the most important things to pay attention to when you’re on the hunt.
Before you begin your search, take a moment to consider exactly what kind of radio would be best suited to the kind of boating that you’re doing. If you’re heading out onto the open ocean, your priority should be looking for a fixed VHF radio, supplemented by an extra handheld unit for emergencies. If you’re heading out to sea, you’ll want a radio that can monitor several channels at once, with a serious range and more transmitting power.
If you’re just exploring the coast, a smaller radio with less power is probably a better investment.
Generally, a VHF radio’s range is governed by the device’s power. The maximum power for most handheld marine radios is 6 watts, which can give you up to 20 miles in the right conditions. Unfortunately, the higher the wattage used, the faster you’ll drain your battery. It’s a wise idea to look for a radio that has selectable power and wattage settings. This allows you to put your radio on a low wattage conserving the battery for when you really need it most. Some radios have quick boost options, allowing you swap to full power in a hurry.
Like it says above, your battery can be drained quite quickly if you’re using full power. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that can be done about that since there’s only so much power that you can store inside of a battery, whilst keeping your device small, compact, and handheld. There are some radios that have very large batteries, but they come at a cost. Naturally, they’re not as portable. And secondly: if you drop them overboard, they are going to sink like a stone. Batteries are heavy, and if you need a large capacity battery, you’ll have to compromise on portability and buoyancy.
If you opt for a heavy battery, you will almost certainly lose any buoyancy. Many handheld marine radios are designed specifically to float on water should they fall overboard—and that’s a particularly useful thing. Radios that are built to float on water are going to have a high-degree of waterproofing. If you fall overboard with a radio in your hand, a waterproof radio could save your life. Even if you never fall overboard, having a radio that withstand some serious water is what you need. IPX7 and IPX8 are generally the best ratings you can get. These ratings mean that a product is waterproof up to 3 or 5 feet in water (respectively).
GPS (Global Positioning System) isn’t an essential feature for handheld marine radios, but there are a number of items that have GPS capabilities. These can be particularly handy in an emergency, since it’s easy for you to give your exact position to the Coast Guard, or rescue vessel. GPS isn’t just for emergencies though. You can use GPS devices to remember specific locations, add waypoints to maps, and plot charts. This is ideal for fisherman who have favorite fishing spots, or divers who want to explore a certain reef. Again, it’s not an essential feature, but it is very useful.
DSC, which is the abbreviation of Digital Selective Calling, is a useful feature that all fixed, hard-wired VHF have had since the late 90s. A digital selective calling system is not mandatory for handheld marine radios to have them, but quite a lot of them do.
DSC radio is a great feature. It’s a simple one-button-push that transmits an emergency distress call directly to the Coast Guard. That single button push can save time, and save lives, that’s why so many devices have it installed. In fact, devices that are also equipped with GPS technology often transmit your location co-ordinates directly to the emergency services too, making for quicker, and easier rescues.
Though DSC technology it’s not an essential feature, it better to have it than not.
The ability to monitor more than one channel at a time is pretty useful when you’re out on the water. Handheld marine radios that are capable of monitoring two channels are known as “Dual Watch,” and those capable of monitoring three are known as “Tri Watch.” Dual Watch allows you to monitor a priority channel, and a secondary channel without having to switch between the two. A Tri Watch device will monitor your priority channel, Channel 09, and a third channel of your choice.
There is such a thing as Quad Watch, which allows the monitoring of four channels simultaneously, but very few handheld vhf marine radio units boast this feature.
Being able to monitor multiple channels is a very useful function, and you should look out for it when you’re browsing.
While these aren’t the most important things to look out for, some nice additional features could help sway your decision when you’re shopping around for a radio. Here are some of the most interesting features that boaters can take advantage of:
Some radios communicate with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and receive regular updates and alerts. These warnings can help keep you safe, stopping you from straying into the path of a storm, alerting you to potential danger. Some radios even have built in alarms that sound when they received a weather alert from NOAA.
NOAA alerts are nation-wide, however, SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding) is a great tool for receiving regional weather updates. A radio that provides both of these will be a valuable asset onboard.
Noise reducing and noise cancelling features are useful. This technology essentially filters out background noise and isolates and amplifies speech. This feature cleans up the audio, removing the sound of waves crashing, wind blowing, and engine noise, which could interfere with the clarity of your message. In an emergency, you need to be heard, and be able to understand instructions from the Coast Guard. Noise cancelling technology could be a life saver, so it’s worth looking out for.
Rewind Say Again
Rewind Say Again is a useful feature, and incredibly important if you miss a transmission or don’t quite understand a communication. In short, it’s a feature that records the last transmission and allows you to play it back. This is great is you can’t properly hear a transmission, or if the person broadcasting is unable to repeat what they said. This feature allows you to listen again, without missing something of vital importance that you may have missed the first time.
Why Use A Radio When I Could Use My Phone?
For many sailors, cell phones have become their primary means of both ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication. Even the Coast Guard will often ask for a cell number after it receives a distress call. None of this, however, makes a VHF radio any less important—and this goes just as much for a handheld as any fixed-mount model.
There are a number of reasons for this: first and foremost, the fact that despite the seeming ubiquity of cell coverage these days, it is still far from total, even for those sailing coastal. Of course, for those going offshore or venturing to remote locals, cell coverage simply isn’t part of the equation.
Beyond that, while it may be convenient to call ahead to a marina or make dinner reservations by phone, VHF remains the primary means of making a distress call, either to the Coast Guard or any towing services in the area, both of which monitor channel 16. Same thing with any other boats in the vicinity, making VHF a critical safety device. If you’ve run aground and don’t happen to have the cell number of that sport fishing boat roaring by, the only way you’re going to be able to hail it is by VHF, even if you are literally stuck in the shadow of a nearby cell tower.
Of course, cell phones are notorious for running out of juice or dropping dead after getting wet, while VHFs are both heavily marinized and run off reliable sources of power—either the house battery bank with a fixed-mount unit, or a rock-solid battery pack, or packs, in the case of a handheld. VHF radios also remain the primary means of communicating with such marine entities as lock tenders, bridge tenders, harbor masters and race committees, as well as a great way of picking up NOAA weather forecasts. In the case of handhelds, they are also an excellent (and fully waterproof!) means of reaching out from the “mother ship” to any crew who may be off exploring or running errands in the dinghy.
Finally, handheld VHFs fulfil one of the critical requirements of any safety system—redundancy. Not only are they up to the task of operating amid wind and rain, but they keep on working even when your cell phone has long given up the ghost or your fixed-mount radio has been rendered non-functional due to fire, a sinking or after you’ve had to abandon ship. Not for nothing do sailors include a VHF handheld in their ditch bag.
Marine Radio Information for Boaters
We had a lot of response when we asked the question; “what courses would you like to see?” One suggestion was a course on radio procedure. While we have future plans for a course on radio licensing, we felt that some frequently asked questions about radios might be in order. Much of the information presented here is courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard and the FCC.
You have the option of selecting one of the questions below to go directly to that information or simply start with “Who needs a radio?” and scroll through the entire article.
- Who needs a radio?
- Do I need a radio license?
- Do I need a permit to operate a radio?
- If I have a radio do I have to listen to all that noise?
- There are so many channels, how do I know which to use?
- Okay, so I have a radio, how do I use it?
- What About in an Emergency situation like Mayday! Mayday! Mayday?
- What do you do if you hear a distress call?
- What do you do if you are out of range of other vessels and no one responds to your distress call?
- How do you know if there are Storm Warnings?
- What about radio checks, how do I know my radio is working?
- What about MAYDAY Radio Checks and other Hoaxes?
Although recreational vessels less than 20m (65.6 feet) in length are not required to have VHF radios, before you purchase anything else, make sure you have a VHF marine radio. If you plan to travel more than a few miles offshore, you should strongly consider purchasing an HF or single side band radiotelephone or mobile satellite telephone, an emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB, and a second VHF radio or cellular telephone as well.
Mobile satellite telephones are becoming more common and more inexpensive. The mobile satellite will provide easier and clearer communications than the HF radiotelephone, but the HF radiotelephone will receive high seas marine weather warnings. Your radio is part of your life insurance policy that we talked about last week when we addressed EPIRB’s .
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 permits recreational boaters to have and use a VHF marine radio, EPIRB, and marine radar without having an FCC ship station license. Boaters traveling on international voyages, having an HF single sideband radiotelephone or marine satellite terminal, or required to carry a marine radio under any other regulation must still carry an FCC ship station license.
Those not exempted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 must still have an FCC ship station license. A ship station license application is made on FCC Form 605, available from local FCC Field Offices, by writing to the FCC, P.O. Box 1050, Gettysburg PA 17326, or by calling the FCC Forms Distribution Center at (202)418-3676 or the toll-free number (800) 418-FORM. Forms can also be obtained from most marine electronics dealers.
Radios can be used immediately upon license application. The license is not transferable if a boat is sold or if the installed radio equipment is moved from one boat to another.
If you wish to purchase a portable radio for use on more than one boat, only one license is necessary. When completing an FCC Application for Ship Station License (form 506), check “Portable” in block 10, “Type of License”.
The FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit is required for boaters having an HF radiotelephone, for boaters having a VHF transceiver and traveling in foreign waters, or where fitting of a marine radio is required by law (e.g. on boats 20m long or larger). There is a fee for this lifetime permit, but no tests are required in applying for this license. An application is made on FCC Form 753, available from local FCC Field Offices or by writing to the FCC, P.O. Box 1050, Gettysburg PA 17326.
Even though you may not be required to carry a VHF marine radio, if you do (and you should) you must maintain a watch on channel 16 (156.800 MHz) whenever the radio is operating and not being used to communicate. You may alternatively maintain a watch on VHF channel 9 (156.450 MHz), the boater calling channel. Note however that urgent marine information broadcasts, such as storm warnings, are announced on channel 9 only in First CG District waters (northern New Jersey, New York and New England).
Recently a charter boat whose radio was not tuned to the proper channel missed a severe storm warning. By the time the captain learned of the storm, it was too late to return to shore. The ship sank and a couple of persons died. A yacht in trouble off the west coast of Mexico, and far from help, saw a passenger ship. What should have been a quick rescue almost turned to disaster when the passenger ship (improperly) had its radio off. The yacht was able to attract the ship’s attention, however, and was rescued. Misunderstanding of passing intentions by approaching vessels and near collisions have repeatedly been averted by working radios tuned to the proper channel.
The International Telecommunications Union established three VHF marine radio channels recognized worldwide for safety purposes:
- Channel 16 (156.800 MHz) – Distress, safety and calling
- Channel 13 (156.650 MHz) – Intership navigation (bridge-to-bridge)
- Channel 70 (156.525 MHz) – Digital Selective Calling
Let me start by talking about the major channels that recreational boaters should be familiar with. The Federal Communications Commission has established VHF-FM channel 9 as a supplementary calling channel for noncommercial vessels (recreational boaters). A ship or shore unit wishing to call a boater would do so on channel 9, and anyone (boaters included) wishing to call a commercial ship or shore activity would continue to do so on channel 16. Recreational boaters may continue to call the Coast Guard and any commercial facility on channel 16.
The purpose of the FCC regulation is to relieve congestion on VHF channel 16, the distress, safety and calling frequency. FCC regulations require boaters with a VHF boat radio to maintain a watch on either VHF channel 9 or channel 16, whenever the radio is turned on and not communicating with another station.
Warning: The Coast Guard announces urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings on channel 9 in the First Coast Guard District only (waters off the coast of northern New Jersey, New York, and New England). For that reason, we strongly urge boaters to use channel 9 in these waters. Use of channel 9 in other waters is optional, and we recommend boaters keep tuned to and use channel 16 in those waters unless otherwise notified by the Coast Guard.
Channels 9 and 16 are used for “hailing” (calling another vessel) only. Once you have contacted a vessel you should move your conversation to a “working channel”. That is, one designated as “non-commercial” such as channel 68.
Another channel you should be aware of is channel 22A. This channel is reserved for the U.S. Coast Guard to relay marine information broadcasts. You may on occasion hear on channel 16 an announcement by the USCG telling all boaters that they have information that may be of importance to you. They would request that anyone wanting to listen to the information switch to channel 22A to hear the information.
If you would like to view or print out the available channels, transmitting and receiving frequencies and description and use of the channel just go to the channel listing. Click here for a full list of VHF boat radio channels.
The standard procedure for a non-emergency call such as calling another vessel, marina, or restaurant to ask where to tie up for dinner, is as follows. This is the correct way how to use a marine radio:
- You should call the vessel, marina or restaurant on channel 9 or 16 in the following manner.
- Name of station being called, spoken three times.
- The words “THIS IS”, spoken once.
- Name of your vessel and call sign (if you have a station license) or boat registration number, spoken once.
- The word “OVER”.
- Then you wait for the station being called to answer. Their answer should be in the same manner as your call.
- Once answered you should suggest going to a working channel to carry on your conversation.
- The word “OVER”.
- Wait for reply or confirmation from the station being called, switch to the working channel and repeat the process.
An example might be:
Calling Station: “Sailfish Marina, Sailfish Marina, Sailfish Marina, THIS IS the motor vessel Magical Lady, WAI4093, OVER” (WAI should be spoken Whiskey, Alpha, India, fow er, zero, nin er, tree) If you think this sounds cool and very official you can view and or print out the phonetic alphabet here .
Responding Station: “Magical Lady, Magical Lady, Magical Lady, THIS IS Sailfish Marina, WBC5678, OVER” (WBC should be spoken Whiskey, Bravo, Charlie, fife, six, seven, ait)
Calling Station: “Please switch and listen channel 68, OVER.”
Responding Station: “Switching channel 68, OVER.”
You would then switch to channel 68 and call Sailfish Marina using the same procedure and conduct your business. All conversations whether on a hailing channel or a working channel should be kept short and to the point.
You may only have seconds to send a distress call. Here’s what you do. Transmit, in this order:
- If you have an HF radiotelephone tuned to 2182 kHz, send the radiotelephone alarm signal if one is available. If you have a VHF marine radio, tune it to channel 16. Unless you know you are outside VHF range of shore and ships, call on channel 16 first.
- Distress signal “MAYDAY”, spoken three times.
- The words “THIS IS”, spoken once.
- Name of vessel in distress (spoken three times) and call sign or boat registration number, spoken once.
- Repeat “MAYDAY” and name of vessel, spoken once.
- Give position of vessel by latitude or longitude or by bearing (true or magnetic, state which) and distance to a well-know landmark such as a navigational aid or small island, or in any terms which will assist a responding station in locating the vessel in distress. Include any information on vessel movement such as course, speed and destination.
- Nature of distress (sinking, fire etc.).
- Kind of assistance desired.
- Number of persons onboard.
- Any other information which might facilitate rescue, such as length or tonnage of vessel, number of persons needing medical attention, color hull, cabin, masks, etc.
- The word “OVER”
Stay by the radio if possible. Even after the message has been received, the Coast Guard can find you more quickly if you can transmit a signal on which a rescue boat or aircraft can home in.
An example of a Mayday call:
THIS IS BLUE DUCK-BLUE DUCK-BLUE DUCK WA1234
CAPE HENRY LIGHT BEARS 185 DEGREES MAGNETIC-DISTANCE 2 MILES
STRUCK SUBMERGED OBJECT
NEED PUMPS-MEDICAL ASSISTANCE AND TOW
THREE ADULTS, TWO CHILDREN ONBOARD
ONE PERSON COMPOUND FRACTURE OF ARM
ESTIMATE CAN REMAIN AFLOAT TWO HOURS
BLUE DUCK IS THIRTY TWO FOOT CABIN CRUISER-WHITE HULL-BLUE DECK HOUSE
Repeat at intervals until an answer is received.
If you hear a distress message from a vessel and it is not answered, then you must answer. If you are reasonably sure that the distressed vessel is not in your vicinity, you should wait a short time for others to acknowledge.
Tune your HF radiotelephone to an HF channel guarded by the Coast Guard, and repeat your mayday call. Activate your EPIRB.
The higher you can install you VHF antenna, the further you will be able to communicate. The height of a VHF antenna directly affects the range of your transmissions.
The Coast Guard announces storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts on VHF channel 16 and 2182 kHz before making the broadcasts on VHF channel 22A and 2670 kHz respectively. The Coast Guard announces urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings on channel 9 in the First Coast Guard District only (waters off the coast of northern New Jersey, New York, and New England).
The Coast Guard First District (New England, south to northern New Jersey) is now answering radio checks on VHF maritime channel 16, operations permitting. Radio checks will not be answered when CG radio operators are handling distress communications.
The purpose of this policy change is to help reduce hoax MAYDAY calls. Radio checks with the Coast Guard are not permitted in any other location.
You should limit your radio checks to working channels.
A growing number of boaters unsuccessful in getting a radio check on VHF channel 16 are calling MAYDAY to get a response. Every hoax, including MAYDAY radio checks, is subject to prosecution as a Class D felony under Title 14, Section 85 of the U.S. Code, liable for a $5000 fine plus all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual’s action. Since hoaxes can lead to loss of life, the Coast Guard and Federal Communications Commission will work closely together, using, when necessary, FCC equipment capable of identifying the electronic signature of the offending radio.
Updates : Within the past few years channel 9 was also designated to be used as a hailing frequency in addition to channel 16 (which is both hailing and distress). However, in the First Coast Guard District only (waters off the coast of northern New Jersey, New York, and New England), the Coast Guard announces urgent marine information broadcasts and storm warnings on channel 9.
As of July 1, 2000, the Ninth Coast Guard District (Great Lakes Region) mandated that US recreational boaters use channel 9 only as a hailing frequency and they are not to hail on channel 16. This is due to the increase in radio traffic on channel 16. Emergencies, however, are still reported on channel 16.