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Mayday: Use VHF Radio for Emergencies at Sea and Distress Calls

A reminder from the U.S. Coast Guard to use your VHF radio—not your cellphone—to call for help when you're in distress on the water.
Boating Safety


Can You Hear Me Now?

VHF-FM radios come in handheld models, similar in appearance to walkie-talkies, and fixed-mount units that can be installed in or above a boat’s dashboard. Regardless of choice, VHF-FM technology makes these radios more suitable for a marine environment than a cell phone.

Like cell phones, VHF-FM radios use line-of-sight transceivers to transmit and to receive information, but VHF signals are much stronger than the signals of most cell phones. Handheld VHF radios can transmit using up to 6 watts of power, and fixed-mount units transmit using up to 25 watts of power. Connect the radio to an antenna mounted on the bridge or to the roof of a boat, and now the VHF has a range of up to 25 to 30 miles, says Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Timothy Pendergrass, an electronics technician assigned to the Coast Guard’s Electronics Support Detachment in Portsmouth, Va.

“With cell phones, range depends on the manufacturer and where the tower is,” he explains. “But guys who take cell phones out in their boats don’t know that. There’s not a boundary line they draw in the water. They just go fishing and then realize they don’t have any service anymore.” 

In addition to VHF-FM’s greater range and reliability in offshore environments, VHF radio batteries typically have longer lives. Built-in units will power on as long as a boat’s battery supply remains functional, and the batteries for handheld VHF-FMs will last from 7 to 20 hours depending upon the model and manufacturer. Pagels says in a pinch, a search and rescue controller could send text and receive text messages to a cell phone with a dwindling battery, but as the case of the Sea Wolf illustrates, every minute counts.  Do you really have time to be using a keypad while sinking in water that is 37 degrees?

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