I’ve Decided To Upgrade My VHF.

When it comes to marine electronics, VHF (very high frequency) radios are, without a doubt, the most common electronic accessory found on saltwater vessels. And while these essential safety devices enable instant communication between nearby boaters, marinas, bridge tenders and USCG personnel, they also serve as crucial fishing tools. However, don’t think for one second that while fishing off the coast of Miami you’ll be able to hail your buddy trolling for wahoo off Bimini. Marine VHF radios work by line-of-sight and transmission is typically limited to 20-miles, although this can be highly dependent on your VHFs output, wattage and antenna.


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Photo: Steve Dougherty

A recent innovation to the recreational VHF radio is the introduction of Digital Selective Calling (DSC). And while this advanced attribute is old news to commercial marine applications, the recreational sector is now reaping the rewards of increased situational awareness. While the most recently released and technologically advanced VHF radios provide Category D (recreational) Digital Selective Calling modes, not all VHF marine radios have the ability to send and receive DSC data. Generally, this feature is only available on higher-end models, so before you make a final purchasing decision be sure the particular unit you’re interested in has DSC position polling reception. With this function one can request the position of another vessel, or simply send your position to the vessel of your choice.

The benefits of Digital Selective Calling are clear. While chatting about the hot-bite without letting the cat out of the bag is a huge benefit to tournament professionals and weekend warriors alike, DSC equipped VHFs have greatly increased safety benefits that are of much greater importance. Under emergency situations, by activating a single button, a distress signal is automatically broadcast to all DSC equipped vessels and command centers within range.

This transmission will include your identity, position, and nature of distress, therefore eliminating the guesswork for search-and-rescue crews. The transmission will repeat until acknowledged by a recipient and can be particularly useful if you’re ever forced to abandon ship. It’s also beneficial in the fact that you no longer have to monitor channel 16. DSC users are required to register for a Mobile Service Identity number (MMSI) through the FCC ( and if someone wants to reach you they can simply dial your nine-digit MMSI number.

When it comes to selecting the proper VHF radio for your particular application—DSC equipped or not—the options are endless with hundreds of models available. First things first, you will have to decide if you want a fixed-mount or portable handheld VHF. The benefits of a fixed mount VHF include a reliable power source, higher transmit power, and extended range. Portable VHFs are essentially waterproof walkie-talkies, although manufacturers have recently released compact handhelds with powerful Lithium-Ion batteries that offer extended range and talk time. Some of the latest user-friendly features include noise-cancelling microphones for clearer transmission, built-in digital recorders that save approximately 20 seconds of conversation, selectable transmit power, and access to 24-hour NOAA marine weather forecast channels. Another unique feature manufactures are integrating is a sound pressure level that automatically adjusts the volume to account for ambient background noise. Several manufactures have also integrated Bluetooth features that can pair your mobile phone and VHF. Once linked, the VHF will act as a speaker and microphone, enabling you to store your cell phone in a secure and dry location. This feature also vastly improves audio quality on both ends of transmission.

One thing is for certain; manufacturers are designing compact and powerful VHF units that offer improved performance, greater reliability and attractive, user-friendly features—and at significantly lower costs than years past.

VHF Channels

Channel 9: Recreational Calling Channel for use by non-commercial boaters. Used to make initial contact, therefore clearing channel 16 of some of its traffic.

Channel 13: Designated for commercial navigation and for use by bridges and locks. Bridge tenders monitor channel 13.

Channel 14: Used by Harbor Control. Here you’ll find pilots and other port personnel.

Channel 16: Strictly for emergency, distress, safety and initial vessel contact messages.

Channel 22A: Coast Guard Liaison Channel. If you hail the Coast Guard on channel 16, you will likely be moved to 22A.

Channels 68, 69, 71, 72, 78A: Recreational Calling Channels.

Channel 70: Reserved for Digital Communications.


Cobra Electronics:
Standard Horizon: