Custom Search

VHF Marine Radio

Which One's Right for Your Boat?

VHF marine radio is the most popular way of communicating with other vessels and shore stations where the range allows. VHF sets are simple, compact, robust units and, compared to other two-way communication devices, inexpensive.

Radio waves travel in straight lines, which means that 'if you can see it, you can talk to it'.

So providing there's nothing in the way, like the curvature of the earth or a land mass to deflect it or stop it altogether, range will depend on the respective heights of the transmitting and receiving vhf marine antenna.

On a sailboat there's only one sensible place to have it; at the top of the mast.

VHF Marine Radio Range

Here's a useful table which will give you a reasonable idea of the range of your particular instalation. The height of the VHF marine antenna means the height above sea level, and the distance to the horizon is expressed in nautical miles...

Height of Antenna

2 metres

5 metres

10 metres

15 metres

20 metres

25 metres

35 metres

50 metres

75 metres

100 metres

Distance to Horizon

4 NM

6 NM

8 NM

10 NM

11 NM

13 NM

15 NM

18 NM

22 NM

26 NM

So if your sailboat has its VHF antenna 15m above sea level and another vessel has its 10m above sea level, then you can just about communicate with each other providing you're no more than 18 nautical miles (10 NM + 8 NM) apart.

If you were communicating with a shore station with its VHF antenna 100m above sea level, then you VHF range would be 36 nautical miles.

Similarly your handheld VHF (2m above sea level) would only have a 12 nautical mile range when communicating with a vessel with its VHF antenna 10m above sea level.

Range is also affected by power, which is measured in watts. Fixed installations can be switched between low power (1w) and high power (25w). For longer range marine communication, you'll need an SSB radio installation.

Until fairly recently, coastguard stations worldwide and all vessels at sea were required to keep a listening watch on VHF channel 16 (156.8MHz) and 2182kHz. Vessels in distress relied on their MAYDAY call being picked up and acted upon as a result of their vigilance.

All this has now changed with the advent of DSC equipped VHF radios, which automate the whole process at the press of a distress activation button.

Fixed VHF Marine Radio Sets

Most of us opt for one of these located at our boat's navigation area, with extension speaker mounted in the cockpit.

Standard Horizon Gx2200 Matrix Ais Fixed Mount Vhf; Black

After many years of reliable service, my ICOM VHF rolled over and died, and I decided to replace it with one of the the new Standard Horizon combined VHF/AIS sets shown here.

Coupled to my chart-plotter it displays AIS data of all appropriately equipped vessel on the display.

They're obviously a little more expensive that a standard set, but a lot cheaper than two individual VHF and AIS sets. It's proved to be a great purchase.

Handheld Marine VHF Radio

All cruising boats should carry a handheld VHF marine radio in addition to the fixed installation - ideally a waterproof one that floats like the one shown here. But why?

Imagine you're going ashore in the yacht's tender in a brisk offshore wind...

The outboard stops or you drop an oar. Without a handheld VHF set to call for help on, you could well find yourself in a spot of bother; particularly so if darkness is setting in. 

And if, like this one, it has a built-in GPS receiver you can tell your rescuers exactly where you are. 

Standard Horizon Hx851 Floating Handheld Vhf With Built Gps

And a handheld VHF radio is a very useful back-up if the fixed VHF set lets you down. Hand-held sets normally have power settings of 2.5w and 5w, and some models are now available with DSC (Digital Selective Calling).

Take a look at the range of VHF radios in our online store

International Marine VHF Channels

If you buy a marine VHF radio in the UK today it will have channels 1 to 28 and 60 to 88. Channels 29 to 36 and 38 to 59 are private channels that you won't have access to. Channel 37 is numbered as 'M' and is used by UK marinas and yacht clubs, along with Channel 80.

Channel 16 is reserved for Initial Calling and for Distress and Safety Calling. Having established contact via Channel 16 in a non-distress situation, the station called will nominate a Working Channel to which both parties will switch for the rest of their communication.

The Working Channels are 06, 08, 09, 10, 13, 15, 17, 67, 69, 72, 73 and 77. Channels 10, 67 and 73 are also used by the UK Coastguard so it's best to avoid these. Channel 70 is reserved solely for DSC (Digital Selective Calling) only.

Note that in this case 'International' doesn't include the United States and Canada; they use different VHF channels 'over there'.

Marine VHF Licence Requirements

In the UK you're required by law to have both a Ship Radio License and a VHF/DSC (Short Range) Operators Certificate.

The Ship Radio Licence is free but is required for all VHF marine radios. You can get a Ship Radio Licence right here...

VHF Courses

The VHF/DSC (Short Range) Operators Certificate licenses the operator to use the VHF marine radio. You must not send general transmissions on VHF without one. You'll need to attend (and pass) a VHF course to get your hands on one of these.

The VHF Marine Radio Course operated by the RYA is one of the most popular ones, covering:~

  • the basics of radio operation
  • the correct frequencies (channels) to be used
  • distress, emergency and medical assistance procedures
  • making ship to shore telephone calls
  • Digital Selective Calling (DSC) using simulators
  • Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS)
  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB)
  • Search and Rescue (SART)

You are here: Sailboat Cruising > Sailboat Instruments > VHF Marine Radio

Didn't find what you're looking for?
           Use this search feature to find it... 

Custom Search

Recent Articles

  1. A Modern Classic Yacht
    The Mustang 45


    Mar 26, 15 10:16 AM

    Avocet of Ryme is for sale after a successful 18 month trip around the Meditteranean and the Atlantic. She has a strong red cedar/ epoxy sandwich hull

    Read More


    Mar 24, 15 09:22 AM

    ATLANTIC 31 from 1992, Greek Flag. 9.52m X 3.45m X 1.60m Architect J&J Cabinet. Engine Perkins 18CV. Very good condition Grand voile (G2nois enrouleur-

    Read More

  3. 1973 45 FT 'CONQUISTA' FOR SALE

    Mar 01, 15 12:42 PM

    CONQUISTA is a forty five foot center cockpit auxiliary sailing yacht, production built of moulded glass reinforced plastic (GRP) in 1973 by Columbia Yacht

    Read More

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

Our Most Popular Pages...

(and get a free eBook!)

Other Related Articles...

Download Our eBooks!

Never go fishless again!

Spot those flaws and defects and get the best possible deal!

Understand these wonderful devices get the one that suits your boat best.

The day-by-day account of a cruising couple's first Atlantic crossing


Want to sell your sailboat?

Advertise it here for free and see those currently offered for sale!


Got some used sailing gear that you no longer need? Then sell it here!

and a little bit of nonsense:~

How to Recognise a Sailing Fanatic...

Sailing Jargon Buster

This week's word is...

Scantlings ~ Relatively small section (depth x breadth) beams supporting the deck and coachroof.

Read more like this...