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February 08, 2010

Cutting-Edge VHF Handhelds

A new breed of handheld VHF radios tailors well-honed functions to specific needs.
100-0210handheld icom

Handheld VHF radios aren't so simple these days, as manufacturers stuff more and more function into the little devils. They've developed sophisticated features that eliminate a lot of what used to relegate handhelds to second-class citizenship in the VHF world. Sound and fidelity are vastly improved; some integrate with your cell phone; and others function as plotters and nav tools.

Icom's IC-M36 ($189) shows a dedication to the traditional role of the handheld VHF. Foremost is the feature Icom calls Clear Voice Boost, which automatically adjusts both the incoming audio and the outgoing voice level to compensate for environmental noise.

Whether the background is the boom of the surf or the clatter of an engine room, the submicrophone on the back of the radio inverts phase to cancel out ambient noise from the main mic.

"Once it gets loud, the radio volume will automatically go up a notch," says Icom's David McClain. "It's also a 6-watt radio to give you clearer reception and transmission."

Completely waterproof, it incorporates Aqua Quake, a shaker that clears the speaker of water. It's a radio equally at home as a backup on a battlewagon, as a main radio on a small center console, or in the pocket of a surf fisherman or kayak angler, where exposure to dunking is nearly certain.

The lithium-ion battery is also a leap forward in reserve power and convenience. "I fish a lot of striper tournaments," says McClain, "and I carry this as a backup. I charge it once a year, and it holds the charge just sitting."

Cobra Electronics has a pair of new floating handhelds, the MR HH330 FLT ($129.95) and the MR HH475 FLT BT ($179.95), both with 6 watts of power for long-range communication, noise-cancelling microphones to block background noise, and the Burp feature on the speaker to clear it of water. The MR HH475 FLT BT is also fitted with Bluetooth wireless technology and designed to manage a cell phone. "We have the only VHF that can answer your phone," says Cobra product manager Bill Boudreau. Pairing a phone with the HH475 is the same as pairing it with a wireless headset, such as you'd use when driving. "Then as long as your phone is within 30 feet of the radio, even stored in a Pelican case, the radio rings when the phone rings, and you push the blue button on the radio to answer," he says. "You have the VHF controls under your fingers, and a waterproof handset for your cell phone."

The marriage of GPS and VHF came about with the federal DSC mandate on radios, and the expansion of this useful and flexible feature came on strong in the Lowrance LHR-80 about a year ago, when the company stuffed its Track Your Buddy feature, which allows selective tracking based on position polling, into a handheld package.

The radio also offered great circle navigation, waypoint storage and man-overboard functionality on a rudimentary track-plotter screen.

A lot of the same features are now available in the new HX851 ($269.99) from Standard Horizon. Of the two new Standard radios this year, this one has the GPS and all the associated features, including waypoint entry, storage for 200 points, and navigation to a waypoint, to a DSC position request or to a distress call.

It's all new for Standard Horizon, and it's a big deal, according to executive vice president Jason Kennedy. "Last year we offered the 850, a handheld DSC radio," he says, meaning it had a built-in GPS. "But it didn't allow you to navigate to a destination. Now, with the 851, you can receive a distress call and navigate to that distress call or navigate to a waypoint or to a requested position from a friend."

The utility for fishermen is evident when it comes to sharing the action with a trusted partner. But the minimalist finds it a handy tool too. "Imagine a kayaker or small skiff fisherman who will be able to use this to get home by navigating with waypoints and the plotter feature," says Kennedy.

The 851 also has a strobe that deploys when the radio goes overboard - an important rescue feature and handy for retrieving the radio. Standard Horizon's second new radio this year, the HX751 ($159.99), is a stripped-down version without GPS and with a manual strobe light. Both are waterproof, and they float. They have 6-watt outputs, die-cast internal housings, new glow-in-the-dark gaskets making them easy to locate after dark, and lithium-ion batteries with nine-hour capacities.

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Handheld MMSI
Every function on a handheld VHF that involves position polling or DSC relies on a maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) number that is assigned to the radio by the Federal Communications Commission. It's like a telephone number, and it identifies a DSC message as originating from a particular radio. Both BoatUS (boatus.com) and Sea Tow (seatow.com) have forms on their websites that allow you to register a VHF radio and obtain an MMSI number. But there's a catch when it comes to registering a handheld: On the online form is a line requiring a vessel registration number or a documentation number.

The way the forms are set up, you must register the handheld to a vessel. This stymied me, so I called BoatUS and spoke with Sandy Wills, the resident MMSI expert.

 When I explained the dilemma, he started chuckling. "You'd think the powers that be would have thought of that, wouldn't you?" he said. "Say you register the handheld to your Hatteras, which usually has 25 people aboard [another question on the form], then take it out on your kayak and make a distress call. We launch a rescue looking for 25 people based on your registration. What a plan!"
 
There is an alternative, a workaround. "You have to game the system," said Wills, "but it is as close to responsible as you can get."

Here's how to handle the required vessel registration: There is no standard protocol for vessel registration numbers, so when you have no number to put in, simply enter, "See remarks." Then a couple of lines below, in the remarks box, you have a space where you can enter 120 words to the effect of, "This is a handheld VHF independent of any particular vessel."

You can even edit the remarks whenever you want and file a float plan of sorts before you take a trip, providing specific instructions for finding you in the event of a distress activation from your radio. That will allow you to get an MMSI number for an independent handheld VHF and give you access to the higher VHF functions.

"You must have an official MMSI number," said Wills. "You can't get creative and make up your own MMSI number, and you can't use your phone number and leave a digit off," he said.

Sounds like Wills has seen it all.