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September 21, 2007

Make the Call

Today's radios help you stay safe and keep hot bites secret.
By Dave Lear

TUNED IN: Tailor your radio needs to where you fish.
Illustration: Drew Friedman

Before I began writing about fishing and boats full-time, I flew combat reconnaissance missions as a U.S. Navy radio operator. One of my preflight duties was to make sure the aircraft's high-frequency radios were operating properly. From our base in southern Spain, I could routinely make voice contact with Elmendorf Air Force Base, just outside Anchorage, Alaska. That's a distance of roughly 5,300 miles. In those early morning conditions, the waves bounced off the ionosphere to the frozen tundra and back to my headset.

Today that same technology is available to recreational fishermen in the single sideband radio (SSB), only it has had 25 years to improve. Granted, you probably don't need a daily report on the halibut bite. But if you're offshore, floating in the middle of Hudson Canyon with an engine that won't crank, it's good to know you can talk to someone far away.

By Your Side
"Anyone who goes offshore more than 40 or 50 miles should have a single sideband radio onboard," says Rick Waedekin of ICOM America. "It's the only really fail-safe means of communication." Waedekin, a self-professed "radio geek," says intermittent satellite-telephone coverage and the more limited range of Very High Frequency (VHF) radios make the SSB or high-frequency radio an important safety tool. Commercial vessels are required to monitor those bands, multiplying the safety factor.

"The industry rule of thumb is one mile of range per watt," Waedekin explains. VHFs typically have a range of 25 to 30 miles in a straight line from the transmitter to the receiver, ideal for most anglers' communication needs.

BIG SAVE: The radio recalls it all for you.

But for the hardcore offshore angler, SSB radios have 150 watts of standard power to the VHF's 25. SSBs can make contact hundreds and even thousands of miles away during certain atmospheric conditions and can have secure-voice, data-transmission and ship-to-shore capabilities.

The license requirement for VHF radios was lifted in 1996, but ship-station licenses are still needed to operate SSBs outside U.S. waters, such as in the Bahamas. To get licensed, fill out Federal Communications Commission application (http://wireless.fcc.gov/marine), pay the $160 fee, get a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number (MMSI) and start talking.

Digital Age
Even with a long-range SSB, every boat should carry at least one VHF. Both types of radio now come with Digital Selective Calling (DSC), which uses a digitized signal to identify other boats or shore stations by the registered MMSI number. DSC radios can be networked with a GPS, so the signal can transmit your position instantly in an emergency. That's what the red "distress" button on your radio does, and it saves a lot of guesswork for search-and-rescue teams.

The U.S. Coast Guard is upgrading its coastal communications system, known as "Rescue 21." This maritime 911 receives distress calls from DSC-equipped radios. The Coast Guard and other DSC-equipped vessels can then respond to the position.DSC works for anglers, too. The MMSI basically works like a phone number, so you can use your DSC-enabled VHF to dial up your buddy. The DSC call is scrambled for others on the channel, so you can talk about the bite without alerting the entire fleet.

"DSC allows truly private communications," Waedekin says. "Network integration lets you plot the other boat's position. If he's on fish, you'll know exactly where."

Are We Clear?
If DSC makes private calls on the radio, why do so many charter captains use Nextel walkie-talkie cell phones? Because cell phones work-but they should be used as a backup.

According to Sprint/Nextel Florida spokeswoman Nanci Schwartz, cell phones are designed to provide two miles of line-of-sight range to a tower. At sea, the signal may go farther.

In emergencies, coverage gaps and dropped calls present problems. The Coast Guard has suspended their cell-phone-based "*CG" emergency service because of expanded DSC availability. Cell providers are building more towers in big boating areas, but VHF is the best coastal system.

So save your cell for bragging about that trophy wahoo. With DSC-capable VHFs selling for around $100 and SSBs starting at a grand, there's no reason not to stay safely connected on the water.

Play TimeThis radio remembers, so you don't have to.Handheld VHF radios are an essential safety item. But Cobra's MR HH425LI VP radio ($170) takes the portable to a new level, with a built-in digital recorder that saves the last 20 seconds of conversation, letting you replay calls or save messages. It's DSC-programmable, too. Cobra Electronics; (773) 889-3087; www.cobra.com - D.L.

Quality Comms
Keep in touch with the help of these radio manufacturers.

Furuno www.furunousa.com
Humminbird www.humminbird.com
ICOM www.icomamerica.com
Navico (Lowrance, Northstar, Navman, Simrad) www.navico.com
Raymarine www.raymarine.com
Standard Horizon www.standardhorizon.com
Uniden www.uniden.com
West Marine www.westmarine.com