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Handheld Marine VHF Radio Key Features

Key features to look for when buying a handheld marine VHF radio.

October 7, 2015
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Icom IC-M25
A lightweight handheld VHF that’s waterproof to IPX7 standards, floats and has a locating strobe.
Icom America

Whether or not you’ve got a VHF radio mounted in your boat, it’s a good idea to bring a handheld VHF aboard for redundancy. Don’t have one? Here’s what to look for in a handheld marine VHF radio, such as the new Icom M25.

Wattage
When it comes to handheld VHF radios, a 5-watt unit is all you need. Since VHF radio waves travel in a straight line, the range of a handheld typically does not extend beyond the horizon (or 5 miles), and in close quarters you can typically switch the unit to 1 watt of output to save battery life.

Dual- and Tri-Watch
Dual- and tri-watch allow you to monitor two — or three — channels at the same time. With dual, you can keep attuned to official chatter on Channel 16 and use another to monitor, so if there’s a hot bite or a discussion among fellow captains, you don’t have to miss out. With tri-watch, you can monitor 16, 9 and another channel.

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Noise Canceling
Of course, you’ll miss everything if transmissions are garbled by static and background noise. Look for a unit with a good squelch functionality to minimize received static. Some makes use proprietary noise-canceling technology to ensure wind or engine noise won’t garble your transmissions.

Size
Remember when cellphones started shrinking to the size of a credit card? Turns out nobody liked those because they were too clumsy to work with using your fingers and the screens were too small. You could apply the same logic to handheld VHFs. Look for one that’s an appropriate size to comfortably operate, with an easy-to-use interface.

Weight
Smaller may not always be better, but lighter is. While some seem to weigh more than your average cinder block, a unit like the Icom M25 checks in at under 8 ounces, so it won’t be annoying to hold up for long stretches or feel like a dive weight clipped to your belt.

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Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries are the preferred choice in newer-generation VHF radios. They don’t get damaged if you charge them when they’re not completely drained, have a long shelf life and, in the case of the M25, can hold a charge for 11 hours of use. For charging, look for one with a USB connector as well as a 12-volt “cigarette lighter” style charger. The USB provides more options for charging with modern gadgets.

Waterproofing
While some models claim to be “weatherproof,” meaning they’re good with a light splash, it’s better to get one that is completely waterproof. You never know where it’s going to wind up on board, or in what conditions, so make sure it meets IPX7 standards, which means it will work when submerged in 1 meter (3 feet) of water for 30 minutes. In the unlikely event you have to abandon ship, you’ll appreciate having working communication.

Floating
Speaking of being submerged, get a model that floats. If you drop it, a handheld does no good resting on the seafloor. A model like the M25 also turns on a flashing red light upon falling into the water, so you can locate it.

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Weather
Look for a unit that has an automatic weather alert so that, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issues a weather warning over the radio, it will automatically switch to the forecast channel and sound an audible alarm.

DSC?
Some handheld VHFs offer the protection of DSC, or digital selective calling. To use DSC, you need to obtain a Marine Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number for your radio (obtained through Sea Tow, BoatU.S. and the U.S. Power Squadrons.) When activated, the DSC distress function uses built-in GPS to broadcast your information and coordinates.

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