VHF Marine Radios and Why Cellphones Won't Do

The US Coast Guard Navigation Center says that when it comes to marine safety, you should buy a VHF radio for your boat before anything else. 

VHF fixed-mount marine radio

There’s a good reason for that. While everyone carries a cellphone with them these days, trusting only a phone for communications when going boating is a dangerous leap of faith. Even though smartphones have anything and everything you can imagine for our modern communication needs, they're pretty useless when it comes to boating safety. Here are some reasons why every boat should have a VHF radio onboard.

Why VHF Radios are Essential

Cellphones have a bad habit of not working as you move further away from the shoreline, especially when you need them most. Unless your smartphone is within range of a cell tower, it’s bound to lose its connection and essentially become useless offshore.

VHF marine radios vs cellphones

If you’re able to successfully make a distress call on a cellphone from a boat, it can still only be heard by the person on the other end of the line. However, a distress call made using a VHF radio will be heard by everyone within your radio's transmission range. These marine electronic devices are capable of communicating over long ranges, which greatly improves response and rescue times. Handheld VHF radios have ranges of 5-10 miles, while fixed-mount VHF radios have ranges of 15-25 miles. Antennas and boosters can also extend communication range to more than 30 miles. 

VHF marine radios water rescue

The US Coast Guard constantly monitors VHF radio transmissions, not cellphone calls. VHF radios are also easier to locate than cellphones, and the USCG can follow a VHF radio’s transmission to its source. Locating a cellphone, on the other hand, is time-consuming and requires the 911 dispatcher to ask for the phone’s service provider to release the location information, which hinders response and rescue times. Additionally, VHF radios provide severe weather warnings and other urgent messages from the USCG on Channel 16. 

Uniden handheld VHF radio



Cobra Electronics handheld VHF radio with GPS

Standard-horizon vhf handheld marine radio

Made for the Water

VHF radios are built for marine environments, and most handheld and fixed-mount VHF radios are waterproof, unlike most cell phones. A VHF radio can also be used for non-emergency communication with other boats, marinas and bridges, which can be useful in arranging berths, raising drawbridges and so on.

Handheld VHF marine radio

The VHF radio is your primary means of communication while you’re on out on the water, putting you in direct contact with the USCG and all other boats in your area for when emergencies happen.

Choosing a VHF Radio

Fixed-mount VHF radios offer much greater range and transmitting power than handheld VHF radios. 

Standard-Horizon VHF Class D radio

Uniden VHF/DSC radio

VHF radios mounted to the boat run off the boat’s batteries, so they’ll always be operational provided the vessel's electrical system is working. The downside to fixed-mount radios is they require space to be mounted within the boat and won’t work if the electrical system fails, which can happen in an emergency such as a boat fire.

Handheld VHF radios have less power and range, but are small enough to fit in a pocket, and can be transferred between boats. Standard-Horizon floating handheld VHF radio

Their battery power has a limited run time without recharging, but they’ll continue to work if the boat loses power. Handhelds also come in handy if you’re ejected from the boat or have to abandon it, especially floating handheld models.

Other things to look for when choosing a VHF radio include:

  • Rated to JIS7 and IPX7 submersible waterproof standards
  • Long battery life of at least 10 hours
  • Battery life indicator
  • Illuminated display for use at night

Boats.net carries a large selection of VHF marine radios and accessories, and other boating safety and survival equipment at discounted prices. Contact us if you need any help selecting a VHF radio or any other OEM or aftermarket boating parts and accessories.



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