Very high frequency (VHF) radios provide two-way communication and have a range of five to 30 miles, mostly line of sight with some bending. They are one of the most important safety items on board your boat and are far more reliable than a cellphone with its limited on-water range and frequent dropped calls.
In coastal or inland waters, a VHF radio is generally the most reliable and fastest link to rescuing agencies like the Coast Guard, a towing service or the harbormaster. Other uses include conversing with other boaters, listening to weather information and alerts, calling the race committee or communicating with a bridge operator.
The hand-held VHF has become ubiquitous among savvy boaters as it provides a meaningful combination of safety, convenience and function. Handhelds are used in both the commercial marine world as well as the recreational. Let’s take a look at several options and explore what makes them a valuable resource when at sea, in the dinghy in harbor and when one is ashore while cruising.
The Uniden Atlantis 150 is one of the least expensive options at less than $100. It has many features that more expensive radios have, such as being waterproof and able to float, but it does not have GPS or DSC, so it might be better for smaller boats that are not venturing as far out to sea.
Another low-cost model, the Cobra HH125 may fit your needs if you are staying close to home. It holds five AAA rechargeable batteries and has a DC charger, wrist strap and belt clip. It is quite basic, but it works and is available for only $50. This unit does not float and does not do well if submerged.
Lowrance’s handheld is another option in the mid- to high-cost range. The Lowrance LHR-80 also incorporates GPS, making it a multi-use tool, and provides DSC function and MOB alerts with position via a single button.
The Icom IC-M24 is a mid-level unit that may serve your purpose. Its light weight (9 ounces) and size (5 inches) make it handy if you are walking around with a VHF all day, or you could easily stow it in a pocket when two hands are needed, such as when setting an anchor while talking to the helmsperson.
The Standard Horizon HX890.
Courtesy Standard Horizon
The Icom IC-M93D is a higher-price unit that offers more functionality, including DSC with MOB call, and GPS navigation (location, bearing, speed and ability to set up to 50 waypoints).
The Icom IC-M88 looks quite basic but is filled with features. It is designed and intended for professional use. Its 4-inch size makes it easy to hold and it boasts 5 watts of power — and if you want long battery life, this unit is for you with its ability to go up to 15 hours between charges. However, on this model just the battery pack costs $120.
The HX890 is Standard Horizon’s latest VHF handheld. With 6 watts of transmit power, it comes equipped with DSC and GPS capability, switchable daytime and nighttime mode, waypoint and route navigation — and it may well be the last hand-held VHF you’ll ever want or need. The HX890 also comes with the capability to receive FM radio broadcast bands for when you are relaxing and don’t need to communicate with the unit. It floats, is available in blue or black, and has an impressive three-year warranty.
Last is the Simrad Axis range of GMDSS VHF units that are aimed at the large yachts market. They meet GMDSS requirements and can be used worldwide. Made of modern high-impact materials and practical designs, Simrad’s Axis range offers one of the more rugged, user-friendly VHF radios on the market. You can reportedly drop one of these onto a hard surface from 3 feet with no worry of damaging the interior or the casing. And, according to Simrad, the unit will still float.
As one can see, there are a number of options. Voyagers need to honestly assess their needs and requirements for a hand-held VHF. Whether it is a modest unit to serve as a backup while daysailing around, day racing or monitoring local weather, or a GMDSS model for international sailing adventures — or anything in between — the handheld has a place. There is a reason the handheld has become ubiquitous on sailboats and powerboats of all sizes. Their function and versatility make them a tool one should not be without while on the water. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. How nice that with hand-held VHFs that determination can be based on a thoughtful assessment of your needs!
Charlie Humphries is an ON staff member and an experienced sailor with more than 40,000 offshore miles on passages and deliveries.