Marine News from the Great Lakes

Cell Phones vs. VHF Radios

Published: Thursday, April 28, 2016

A maritime VHF-FM radio is one of the most critical pieces of safety equipment a boater can own. It’s also probably the least expensive equipment you’ll ever purchase, with a waterproof, handheld unit retailing for less than the cost of a new smartphone. So, why do so many boat owners sail without one? Many figure they can rely on their cell phones in times of vessel distress, or when someone on board becomes injured or ill. Big mistake!

Behold today’s smartphones. With built-in GPS systems, and a downloadable app for every task imaginable, new technology makes cell phones seem capable of doing almost anything.

And therein lies the problem.

Sailors who rely solely on cell phones as a means of communication on the water, especially in emergency situations, are part of an alarming trend that U.S. Coast Guard officials say is complicating search-and-rescue missions. At Pantaenius, we want you and yours to sail safely and always be prepared when an emergency arises. Keep reading to learn why having a VHF-FM radio on board is not just a smart move, but also an absolute necessity.

The 411 on Calling 911

At Sea having a cell phone handy on the water offers an added measure of safety, but when emergencies arise, using a VHF-FM radio, not your cell phone, can mean the difference between life and death. Here’s why:

  • If you make a distress call on your cell phone, only the party you call will be able to hear your pleas for help. VHF calls, however, can be received not only by the Coast Guard but also by other nearby vessels that may be able to render assistance.
  • Dial 911 on your cell phone, and the land-based operator may misdirect your call or not know the right questions to ask to carry out a maritime search-and-rescue mission. This wastes precious time. A VHF call goes directly to a Coast Guard watch stander whose expertise lies in getting the necessary information right away. This can lead to rescue helicopters spinning in ten minutes or less.
  • Offshore cell phone coverage is spotty at best and can change without notice, leading to poor reception and dropped calls. VHF signals are much stronger, with most models boasting a range of up to 30 miles. Your VHF can also be used anywhere in the U.S. or around the world.
  • Locating a cell phone caller can be tricky and challenging. If you don’t know exactly where you are, rescuers will have difficulty pinpointing your location on the water. Even cell phones with a GPS transmitter can be difficult, and time-consuming, to track, since the information needed isn’t easily attainable from cell phone carriers, if they do have it, because of privacy concerns. Not to mention that all this research takes time. On the flip side, a VHF radio will transmit at least one line of bearing. This means the Coast Guard has a bearing on your location almost immediately, which narrows the search area and significantly increases the odds of a quick response.
  • If your emergency involves your vessel taking on water, you know that cell phones and water don’t mix. But a good portable VHF with a JiS7 submersible rating will prove extremely reliable.
  • VHF radio batteries typically last far longer than cell phone batteries. Built-in units will power on as long as a boat’s battery supply remains functional, and the batteries for handheld VHFs will last from 7 to 20 hours, depending on the model and manufacturer.
  • A VHF also helps ensure that you receive storm warnings and other urgent marine broadcasts, since the Coast Guard announces these broadcasts on VHF Channel 16. Timely receipt of such information could very well save your life.

What features should you look for in the VHF-FM radio you purchase?

We recommend:

  • A rechargeable battery pack providing 10 to 15 hours of operation on a full charge.
  • A battery life indicator.
  • Selectable transmit power of 5 and 1 watt. Five watts is normally reserved for distress calls and drains down the charge significantly faster than 1-watt transmission.
  • A selectable lighted display for nighttime use.
  • Reception of NOAA weather channels and storm alerts.
  • A Push-To-Talk switch, which activates radio transmission.
  • A squelch control for setting the threshold of random noise reception.
  • An auxiliary, non-rechargeable battery pack as a backup for long trips.

After You Buy: Register and connect your VHF! Just over a dozen years ago, the government mandated that all VHF radios sold in the United States feature Digital Selective Calling (DSC). Subsequently, the Coast Guard modernized its lifesaving system—to the tune of $1.1 billion— to take advantage of this technology. Under this new system, called Rescue 21, in a mere three seconds, or the time it takes you to say, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” authorities have a line of bearing and can send out an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast to alert other vessels in the water, as well as launch a search and rescue effort of their own.

At the press of a single button, DSC radio technology can assist in pinpointing your location and providing the help you need. But for this to happen, the DSC feature on your VHF radio must be enabled, and rescuers need to know the unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number that’s associated with your particular vessel.

The problem is, only a small fraction of U.S. boaters take these two small steps to enable their VHF radios. Six out of ten DSC calls do not have a Maritime Mobile Service Identity Number (MMSI) associated with their VHF radios, and nine out of ten DSC distress alerts have no position information, because they haven’t connected their VHF radios to a GPS! With no position information, or if you’re using an unregistered MMSI, there’s not much the Coast Guard can do after receiving a distress alert.

To take advantage of this lifesaving technology, be sure to connect your DSC-equipped VHF radio to your vessel’s GPS, or have a professional do it for you if need be. Also be sure to register your VHF. This process is quick, easy, and free—and you can do it online through the Federal Communications Commission (

Important: Keep in mind that your MMSI number is unique to your yacht. This means if you sell your vessel, you’ll need to cancel your MMSI number to make it available to the new owner.

Information provided by Captain Henry E. Marx, President of Landfall, which offers a comprehensive curriculum of classroom courses for recreational and professional mariners on topics of boating and seamanship. For more information, visit, or call 1-800- 941-2219.


Photo credit: lu6fpj via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

tags: Electronics, Safety

Go back | Show other stories