Choosing the best marine radio for your situation depends largely on how you intend to use your boat, how much you are able and willing to pay for this important piece of marine electronics, and whether or not you will permanently install the radio.
The marine VHF radio is the primary means of communication for the recreational boat owner. Many marine safety experts say it should be the first piece of marine electronics you buy when outfitting your boat.
A marine VHF radio can issue an immediate broadcast of both voice and digital information that can be heard by emergency agencies such as the Coast Guard and other mariners in your area. Other top uses include communicating with fellow boaters and monitoring weather channels.
Marine VHF radios have improved tremendously in recent years with the introduction of Digital Selective Calling. In an emergency were to develop aboard your boat, pressing the distress button on your marine radio will send an automated digital distress signal with your vessel position and your identity to other vessels and rescue agencies within VHF range.
To take full advantage of DSC you will need to make sure the radio is linked to a GPS receiver. There are many other advantages that DSC offers, including the ability to send a digital call directly to another DSC-equipped vessel or shore station.
The marine market is loaded with VHF radios so choosing the best marine radio for you can be a daunting task. There are two main types: fixed-mount and handheld. The fixed-mount versions range from about $100 to $500 with handhelds priced from $50 to about $300. Any boat that goes offshore should be equipped with a fixed-mount VHF. A fixed-mount marine radio range is about 25 miles depending on antenna height, while a handheld will likely be restricted to about a five mile range.
Fixed Mount Radio Advantages
On the fixed-mount models, you will find rotary knobs or pushbutton up/down arrow keys for selecting channels. The rotary knobs usually allow the user to scroll through the channels faster and easier than up and down pushbuttons. On many marine VHF radios the channel knob will also make menu selections, again it is much easier and faster to use the rotary knob for here too.
If you own a large boat with a cabin, upper helm, fly bridge, or tower station you may want to consider adding a remote VHF station. They cost from $100 to $150. At minimum, a remote microphone connected to your main fixed mount marine VHF will usually have an LCD screen, a quick- access channel 16 button, and volume and squelch controls. You will very likely also now have intercom capability for two-way communication between the main radio and any remote units. Not all marine radio are capable of using a remote so check this out before you purchase.
Investigate the size of the display screen on the radio and make sure it will be big enough for the location you have in mind for mounting. Also consider the size of the displayed channel numbers and make sure you are able to see them from several feet away or when the boat is in a chop and is getting tossed about. You should also take into consideration the pushbutton and screen backlighting if you plan to operate at night.
Since 16 is a VHF radio’s most important channel; many radios have quick-access buttons on the face and on the microphone to select this channel. That is a useful feature.
Here is another consideration when you are trying to find the best marine radio for your boat. Make sure the internal speaker is loud enough for you to hear at sea, with the noise from the wind, waves and engine. Many marine VHF radios have rather meager speakers so make sure the radio has an external jack to add an external speaker. This is almost a must on any boat without an enclosed helm area.
You’ll have to decide whether to flush-mount or bracket-mount your radio, this will depend on the design of the helm. Flush mounting the radio is more secure while using the bracket will allow you to easily remove the radio from the boat when not in use.
A hailer is another option to consider. Having this option will give you the capability to broadcast over external speaker system to other boaters or to land. This type of system is most useful on a larger vessel where communicating by voice alone may be difficult or impossible. Remember to use this feature you will need to install a hailer horn on your boat and connect it to your marine VHF radio.
Handheld Marine VHF Advantages
But the handheld is useful, no doubt, especially as an inshore radio and as a backup. Case in point: Your electrical system fails while you are underway. No problem. You’ve got your handheld, which is not only portable but also powered by its own internal batteries. Redundancy is good thing, especially on a boat.
Make sure your handheld radio meets one of the tough waterproofing standards like IPX6, IPX7, JIS7, or JIS8. The latter means the radio will be submersible to a depth of 1.5 meters for a duration of 30 minutes without suffering any ill effects. Some handhelds also have the ability to float, this can be a real boon when the radio is used on a small boat where dropping it in the water is a real possibility.
Marine Radios Reviewed
A marine VHF radio remains the most useful communication device to have aboard any recreational boat.
And for good reasons: They are relatively inexpensive, they have no monthly user fees, and they can be used for routine voice traffic as well as emergency calls.
Most importantly, when an emergency call is placed with a boat radio it goes out to everyone within range.
Other methods of communicating by voice, via cell phone, for example, have become popular and do have a place on a boat, just not as the primary communications tool.
A cell phone is a one-on-one communication channel through a connection that can often be poor.
Does the “Can you hear me now?” commercial come to mind?
It is much better to trust proven technology like a boat radio with your primary communications duties.
The electronic circuit designs in today’s boat radios have remained basically the same for decades. Performance though has changed significantly over the years and continues to do so. This mandates the need for our detailed testing with the proper equipment to really know how well a radio is operating.
The implementation of Digital Selective Calling or DSC has altered the landscape in the boat radio marketplace. A required function in any newly designed VHF radio since 1999, DSC allows for limited amount of digital information to be transmitted by your boat radio. Today, even the least expensive VHF radios can have an extensive list of DSC capabilities.
More on Marine Radios for Boaters
With all the options and features available on a modern boat VHF radio you will need some ideas on what will meet your specific needs. Our best marine radio page does just that by listing the most important things to look for when buying a boat radio.
Best Fixed Mount Marine Radio
Standard Horizon GX1600 Explorer
The Standard Horizon GX1600 Explorer marine VHF radio is a mid-level unit in a total marine electronics lineup revamp for the company this year. This boat radio features a compact minimum depth design plus built-in Class D DSC capabilities.
The Explorer ships with the radio and attached microphone, a plastic tilt bracket suitable for overhead or dashboard mounting, a fused power cable, and owner’s manual.
To panel mount the GX1600 you would need to either improvise your own mounting system or purchase the optional Standard Horizon MMB-97 flush mounting kit.
Wires extending from the rear panel allow you connect to an external speaker and NMEA0183 devices.
The radio face measures 6-inches wide by 3.2-inches high.
The radio’s die cast metal chassis housing extends back just 2.5-inches from the front panel back and half of that is cooling fins.
This is one compact radio.
A small flush mount step runs around the face back. No gasket is provided to seal a flush mount against water intrusion.
Controls and Operation
The Standard Horizon GX1600 has two small rotary knobs located below the bottom corners of the display screen. The one on the right controls audio volume while the left-hand knob sets the squelch level. Channel selection is made with up/down arrow keys located both on the radio face and the microphone. Dedicated pushbuttons on both the microphone and radio provide single press control for quick selection of channel 16 or 9 and high or low transmitter power.
The radio face also has three soft keys located just below the display screen. Default functions are set to scan, dual watch, and weather channel. These defaults can be changed and additional functions can be added. You can choose to select more that three soft keys functions if desired.
User menus give you even more options to choose from. You will find a display menu, general setup menu, DSC setup, as well as a few others. Using these menus will allow you to set the channel group, various scan options, weather alert, several display screen variations, and all DSC functions.
The GX1600 will interface with a GPS chartplotter using a NMEA0183 interface. When connected to a plotter the Explorer is capable of displaying position, speed, course, and certain waypoint data.
Standard Horizon GX1600 Explorer—Added Features
This Standard Horizon marine radio will output up to 4.5 watts of power to an optional external speaker. It will connect to an optional RAM3 remote microphone. When fitted with a remote microphone the unit will intercom service between the mic and the base radio.
A transmitter timer built into this radio restricts the duration of a single continuous transmission to 5 minutes. You will hear an audible warning a few seconds before the transmitter times out. Once this takes place the radio will automatically disable the transmitter for 10 seconds.
When connected to a working GPS unit the Explorer will indicate it is receiving good position data by displaying a satellite icon onscreen. In addition to the standard position data display this radio also has the ability to a compass rose with a directional indicator as well as a waypoint display which shows time and position as well as range and bearing to a waypoint both digitally and graphically.
When transmitting at full power the radio draws 4.9 amps while a 1-watt output the amp draw falls off to 1.2 amps. We gave the receiver sensitivity and channel separation good ratings based on the factory specifications listed. Audio output was a respectable 92 dBA with volume at maximum while listening to a weather broadcast. As expected, there was some noticeable voice distortion at high volume settings. Overall the Standard Horizon GX1600 audio system proved to be more than adequate for a radio in this price range.
This Standard Horizon VHF boat radio has a gigantic 3.2-inch monochrome full dot matrix display screen with 132 by 64 pixel resolution which I am rating excellent. Using the normal screen mode you will find channel numbers displayed at nearly a full inch in height on the right side of the screen. Position data will fill the left side while channel comments can be seen below the number. This is one of the best and biggest display screens you will see on any mid-level radio.
The GX1600 Explorer is rated waterproof to JIS8 standards which means the radio could be submerged to a depth of 1.5 meters or about 5 feet for 30 minutes without sustaining an water damage.
The GX1600 scans channels via memory or priority. When using memory channels are scanned in numerical order while priority repeatedly scans the priority channel then the next channel in numeric order. Channels are individually set to be part of each scan type. Dual Watch is a two channel scan that goes back and forth between 16 and a communications channel.
Digital Selective Calling
The Standard Horizon GX1600 Explorer is rated as a Class D radio for DSC operations; today this is a requirement of any new marine VHF radio. This means the Explorer has two separate receivers built-in, one designated for voice communications and the second to continuously monitor channel 70 for any incoming DSC calls.
Before you can proceed with using any DSC functions you must enter your MMSI number. Penalties can be severe for improper usage of a marine VHF radio so make sure you enter your correct MMSI number as soon as this radio gets installed. With an MMSI number in memory and when connected to a GPS unit the GX1600 will be able to make DSC distress calls that transmit your information and position data. The Explorer will store up to 80 MMSI numbers in a call directory.
The Standard Horizon GX1600 Explorer is a mid-level radio with a reasonable price tag that features a huge display screen, compact size, a litany of DSC functionality, and more. This radio is a buy in my opinion.
Best Handheld Marine Radio
The Uniden MHS75 is a compact inexpensive submersible marine handheld VHF radio that performed well in our testing.
The radio is housed in a tough die-cast aluminum housing that measures 2.5 inches wide by 4.6 inches tall and is 1.5 inches deep. The radio weighs 10.4 ounces without the included belt clip attached. It carries a 3-year warranty on the radio and a 1-year warranty on the battery.
The MHS75 does not float but does carry an IPX8 waterproof rating. That means it can stand submersion to a depth of 1.5 meters for 30 minutes without sustaining any damage.
This marine handheld VHF radio has top-mounted control knobs for volume and squelch control. It also has eight front-mounted pushbuttons, most of which provide control for two functions. Each carries a label on the button for its primary function and another below for the secondary.
Transmitter output power on the MHS75 can be set to 5, 2.5, or 1 watt. This radio is capable of using all U.S., International, and Canadian marine channels as well as 10 weather channels.
The radio performed well in our testing, earning good ratings for both transmitter frequency stability and power output.
Receiver sensitivity was rated excellent while the maker gives the radio a selectivity rating of 75 dB. Higher is better for selectivity.
In audio testing the MHS75 only managed to hit 79 dBA, adequate but not great. Audio quality was rated good.
It passed the submersion and drop testing with no problem. The MHS75 has rubber gaskets around the battery and the battery to radio electrical connections. This is the highest level of water intrusion protection we’ve seen on marine handheld VHF and is likely needed to achieve the IPX8 waterproof rating.
However, as with any handheld, should you submerge it in saltwater it is best to remove the battery, rinse with freshwater, and then dry everything out to prevent any corrosion from getting a foothold.
The accompanying DC quick charger brings the 1040 mAH lithium ion battery up to full charge in a very quick 4 hours. You’ll need a cigar lighter or power port in your boat or vehicle to charge this radio.
Unfortunately no AC charger or alkaline battery pack is available for this marine handheld. Uniden claims a 12 hour battery life for the MHS75 and in our testing it lasted 12 hours. The Uniden MHS75 uses a BP75 battery which has a replacement cost of $40.
This radio has a sophisticated battery level gage that displays a large battery shaped icon onscreen with four block-shaped level indicators. As the battery level ticks down another block disappears and eventually all the blocks will be gone. Eventually as the battery discharge continues all onscreen data will flash and an audible alarm will sound. If you heed this alarm you’ll still have enough battery life for a number of transmissions.
We rated the display on the Uniden MHS75 as good. For such an inexpensive radio it had a large bright display that showed channel numbers in large segment block-style numbers that included the alpha letter when appropriate. Other onscreen icons show the transmitter power output selection and the channel group in use.
This Uniden handheld VHF marine radio has good overall performance and a robust compact case design. Combine this with a price tag under $100 and the MHS75 is definitely a bargain.
Worldwide Marine Radio Distribution
Generally manufacturers offer radios tailored to the specific markets they are being sold into. Marine VHF radios, probably more so than any other marine electronics product, have to meet very specific requirements for each market into which they are being sold. The frequencies they work on change from market to market. Even the physical markings on the keys and key features of the radio vary from country to country. For example, our NOAA weather radio channels that we all use here in the USA, don’t exist at all in most other parts of the world.
US Marine VHF Radios
Every boat radio sold generally has at least 2 frequency plans built into it, one for home waters and one for international waters. On a US market marine VHF radio these 2 plans are often identified as “USA” and “International.”
Each nation is permitted to come up with their own frequency plan from their own territorial waters. On a VHF radio sold in the United States, this is normally identified as its “USA” mode. The US frequency plan is set up by the FCC and US Coast Guard.
More on Marine VHF Radios—Europe Only Feature
Raymarine and certain other brands of VHF radios built to European standards support a feature called Automatic Transmitter Identification System or ATIS, which doesn’t exist here in the US. On the European river system, in particular, ATIS is used to identify who is broadcasting using a digital packet burst sent on the end of every voice communication. ATIS is monitored by coast stations and traffic control centers to help maintain positive ID on all vessels transiting their area and to ensure the integrity of their communications. It works in place of DSC on these inland waterways.
VHF Radios—Down Under Particulars
I had a question from a consumer who had purchased a used Pursuit fishing boat here in the US and then shipped it to Australia. He could hear other boaters on the VHF radio, but could never get a response from anybody. It turns out that his Ray218 VHF was a US-spec radio as the boat was originally sold new in the US. The US frequency plan is similar to Australia, but not identical.
Ultimately, he needed to get an Australia market marine VHF radio installed on his boat to solve the issue. Even though both the US and Australia models look the same, there are some hardware differences that impact channeling and also some of the radio features. In the end, it was illegal for him to use the US-spec radio there, as the boat was officially registered as an Australian vessel.
Foreign-flag vessels in transit, or visiting, are allowed to operate their own marine VHF equipment on a limited basis in other nation’s territorial waters. They may only do so however so as not to interfere with local radio users. Since his boat was to be a permanent resident, he was required to get a new radio installed.
National Marine VHF Frequency Planning
The territorial frequency plan for any nation takes into account other users of the electromagnetic spectrum and makes sure that marine users will not be interfering with them. Police, fire, military, aircraft, land-mobile, and other users must all fit into the national frequency plan somewhere. Because there are so many potential radio frequency spectrum users worldwide, it is practically impossible to standardize the territorial frequency plans worldwide.
For example, what is a US bridge-to-bridge channel, might very well be the Fire Department’s primary frequency in Japan or the Water and Sewer Department’s walkie-talkie frequency in Brazil.
In the USA, there is very much a shortage of radio spectrum availability due to the high demand from mobile devices, TV, satellite, and thousands of other requirements. The switch from standard definition TV to HDTV was partially to alleviate some of this overcrowding. Shortly after the last of all US broadcasters switch to HD, their old frequencies will be split up and auctioned off by the FCC to other industries and users.
More on Marine VHF Radios—Open Ocean
To enable ships on the high seas to communicate regardless of nationality, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU, a branch of the United Nations) did establish a standard frequency plan for vessels outside of territorial waters. That plan is the International mode on US market VHF radios.
When you look at the US Coast Guards breakdown of the International VHF frequency plan, you’ll notice that many of the frequencies are in blue. These channels are not allowed to be used by marine users in US territorial waters because their frequencies are already allocated to other spectrum users. It highlights just how bad the spectrum problem is here in the US.
International Distress, Safety, and Calling Channel
The one channel in particular that is standardized worldwide is channel 16, which is the international Distress, Safety and Calling frequency. No matter whether you are on a USA or International Channel plan, or on the territorial marine plan of another nation, channel 16 is the same everywhere. That’s why vessels are required to monitor channel 16.
More on Marine VHF Radios—The UK
Your original reader question about using channel 37 in the UK needs a little background information to be provided. Channel 37 or the M1 frequency your reader is looking for is a UK territorial channel established for use by marinas. There are several “M” channels in the UK plan for this purpose. It is designated a “private” channel in the UK and it transmits and receives on 157.850 Mhz. That frequency is not identified on the USA territorial frequency plan at all, so most likely it is being used by some non-marine user here. Nor will you find this frequency listed in the ITUs international frequency plan. So even switching a US market radio into international mode would not help your reader.
If he is going to be cruising the UK extensively, it would probably be a good idea for him to purchase, rent, or even borrow at least a handheld UK market marine VHF radio for the duration of his visit. It will certainly make getting a hold of marinas there much, much easier.
More on Marine VHF Radios
Really, the bottom line for all of your readers is that there is a lot more on marine VHF radios than first meets the eye. In the past, everyone was required to have a VHF radiotelephone operator’s license at a minimum to use a marine VHF radio. However, this requirement was removed for domestic recreational boaters some time ago.
Even though the license is not necessarily a requirement anymore, boaters should definitely take the time to read the owners handbook for their particular marine VHF, and try to understand all of its features and functions. Not only will it make using the radio more enjoyable, it will also make sure they stay compliant with the law. If they are traveling out of US territorial waters it is important to know the local regulations prior to arrival.
Digital Selective Calling
DSC is an attempt to enhance communications between operators who use marine radios. As recreational boaters our main concern is with the marine VHF radio aboard our boats.
Another part of this enhancement is the USCG long planned upgrade to shore and sea based radio equipment to include include Digital Selective Calling or DSC capability.
Once the USCG finishes their communications upgrade, now called Rescue 21 with a planned completion date sometime in 2011, they anticipate having VHF radio coverage out to 20 miles offshore over 98% of the U.S. coastline. This coverage also eventually include Alaska, Hawaii, San Juan PR, and Guam.
They will also have full DSC capabilities at over 270 shore stations and aboard nearly 700 Coast Guard vessels. As of early 2011 nearly all equipment is installed at coastal locations and in Great Lakes areas.
Currently most regions are fully operational and providing coverage over thousands of miles of coastline. When it is complete, it will be an impressive communication and search and rescue system.
Does Digital Selective Calling benefit boaters today? Yes, in a number of ways.
First and foremost, as a distress-calling device your DSC equipped marine VHF radio will likely be heard by not only the Coast Guard but also get be picked up by other recreational or commercial vessels in your area who are also equipped with DSC radios.
Another benefit available today is the individual ship call. You can use this feature to make a discrete call to a friend (as long as his vessel is also DSC equipped and you know his MMSI number) and advise him electronically to talk to you on another frequency. These days you can also make DSC call directly to Coast Guard stattions as long as have the station MMSI number stored in your radio.
With more sophisticated DSC capabilities even your position can be reported to another vessel or station electronically. So what is the upside of this? You and a fishing or cruising partner could exchange the location of each others boats without actually talking on your marine VHF radio.
Other messages that can be sent via DSC include an all-ships call. This one will send a message to any vessel in your VHF coverage area. Message priority can also be attached indicating whether your message is routine, safety, or emergency related.
Geographical calls cover only a specific area while group calls go out to only a specified group of vessels. You likely wont use all of these DSC features but some youll use everyday once you become familiar with them.
When You Buy a Marine VHF
A couple of things to remember when you purchase a fixed mount VHF radio. Right now most any VHF you find for recreational use will be either a Class D or RTCM SC101.
Basically what these classifications mean is this. Class D radios have two receivers so they can listen on channel 70 at all times for DSC traffic.
Recreational marine VHF radios without this class rating will only have one receiver sharing DSC reception with voice reception.
The bottom line on this is if you can afford it buy a marine VHF that is DSC Class D.
DSC Update on SC101
Originally, the SC101 DSC standard was put in play to let marine VHF radio makers build cheaper recreational boat radios. It was never part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System.
The GMDSS, by international agreement, sets the standards for DSC and classifies marine VHF radios as Class A, B, or D. The SC101 standard was never recognized for use outside the U.S. and will be officially put to bed here on March 25, 2011.
After that date it will be illegal to build, sell, import, or install a fixed-mount marine VHF radio that only meets the SC101 standard. Any SC101 radio installed prior to that date may be retained in service.
Anyone looking to buy a new marine VHF radio prior to the termination date needs to be aware that makers and retailers will be trying to clean out stock on these radios and likely be offering significantly reduced prices.
However, you may want to forgo the purchase of one of these radios, no matter how low the price goes, and opt for a full Class D radio instead. These radios offer superior hardware and full digital selective calling performance features when compared to their SC101 DSC counterparts.
Using a Marine Radio
Using a marine radio may appear to be pretty straightforward, but you have to know some rules, procedures and the most important frequencies to fully utilize this critical communication device.
One of the most important things to remember is that channel 16 is the International Hailing and Distress Frequency. This channel is used for calling and distress messages.
If you hail another vessel or shore station and establish communications on channel 16 you will need to promptly switch to another frequency so you don’t tie up channel 16. Before using channel 16, turn it on and listen to make sure it is not being used.
Know this: VHF radio conversations can be heard by every other boater within range that is tuned to that channel. Regulations state that communication via the VHF radio should be for purposes of boat operation, so you should not be rehashing the key plays of yesterday’s big college football game or asking your buddy if he has seen any good movies lately.
Before you can communicate with your marine VHF radio you will need to make sure you have the correct channel group selected, there are three, US, International, and Canadian. Some channels, like channel 16 are the same frequency on all groups, but others are not. Having the same channel group selected on your radio as on those you are trying to communicate with is important.
Using a Marine Radio—To Make a Voice Distress Call
If you are in distress, use the words MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY to get the attention of others listening on the channel. When you make contact with the Coast Guard or another vessel or shore station be ready to provide your position, a description of your vessel, the number of people on board, and the problem. Speak clearly. Speak slowly. Only use the word MAYDAY when someone’s life or the vessel is in immediate danger.
Making an Urgent Voice Call
What about serious situations that are not life-threatening? Use the urgency call attention getter, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN rather than a MAYDAY call, then proceed with your urgent message.
Using a Marine Radio—To Call Another Vessel
To call a another vessel you can try to initiate communications on channel 16. You would say the vessel name three times followed by your vessel name and then wait for a response. If you dont get an answer trying a second time is justified. However, if after a second try you fail to connect, wait some length of time before making another attempt at reaching the vessel. Once you establish communications on channel 16, pick a working channel and switch immediately.
Other Important Channels
Other important channels include 22A, which is the channel the Coast Guard uses to broadcast weather warnings, navigational hazards and other vital facts. If you establish contact with the Coast Guard on channel 16 you may be asked to switch to channel 22A.
Channel 13 serves as the navigation and piloting channel. Use it at bridges, for instance, to request an opening or to communicate your course to a nearby boat. It’s unnecessary to use channel 16 first and then switch to channel 13. For ship-to-ship talk for safety communication (used mainly in situations involving search and rescue), channel 6 is used. Don’t call the Coast Guard for a radio check. It is illegal.
Non-commercial ship-to-ship communications channels are 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A. Channel 9 was previously in this category but is now an alternate calling (but not distress) channel.
There are other channels you should know about. Weather channel numbers are preceded with a WX and your radio will likely have 10 of them, not all will receive a signal so you should investigate which ones broadcast weather information for your area.
Also, should you want to connect to a land line telephone, operators can be found on channels 84 through 88, but you should be aware this can be a costly way to communicate.
Digital Selective Calling
An article about using a marine radio would be incomplete without a description of Digital Selective Calling, or DSC. In an emergency situation, with a press of a button, usually located on the radio face or microphone under a translucent red cover, your DSC radio will send an automated digital distress signal that consists of your position and your MMSI number to other DSC-equipped vessels and rescue agencies within VHF radio range.
To get the most out of DSC you will need to interface your marine VHF radio and your GPS chartplotter. There are many other advantages that DSC offers, including the ability to send a digital call directly to another DSC-equipped vessel or shore station.