Carrying a handheld Floating VHF radios vs a cellphone

People sometimes bring up the importance of carrying a cellphone when paddling solo and offshore. I wonder though if a handheld floating VHF radio like this.. would be better suited for us. On the outer islands, it is easy to get out of cell range on the water and at least with a VHF radio you may have a better chance of hailing a vessel or the coastguard, not to mention it should be a more robust communication alternative.

Does anyone have experience with these radios and paddling an oc-1?

Submitted by King of Kailua on Sun, 11/28/2010 - 10:33am

I would go down to the harbor and survey the boat skippers and see what they use? Maybe they all might prefer cb kine? Most carry both. My waterproof Samsung flip phone does the job and fits in the mesh front pocket of my Mock floatation vest. Unfortunately, on Oahu, it works all the time (PTT too), out in the ocean, when da boss calls (no can escape, even on the bump). Attach a small key float to it and it no sink when dropped in the ocean.

#1 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 9:34am

A major advantage to a VHF radio is that your emergency transmission can be heard by other boaters in the vicinity, increasing the likelihood of fast response. (whereas a cell phone call is private...provided you get signal) It is also easier for the Coast Guard or other agencies to triangulate your position using VHF. Small handheld, waterproof, floating VHF radios are available for less than $200...some models include GPS receivers, and the ability to transmit an emergency digital signal (Digital Selective Calling) that includes your latitude/longitude along with a registered ID number that uniquely identifies your vessel. I use a Standard Horizon HX850S

#2 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 10:02am

Here in Cali if you dial 911 with your cell phone you are connected to CHP (California Highway Patrol). Great if you break down on the side of the road with your boat on your car. Not so great if your two miles out to sea.

#3 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 10:37am

Definitely VHF radio with GPS. Even if you don't register for Digital Selective Calling you can just read them your coordinates to pick you up. In cold water you don't have much time.

#4 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 11:07am

All good points but why limit yourself to only one means of communication? Instead of a vs. argument (cell vs. vhf) it is entirely appropriate to err on the side of safety and carry both. This is especially true if going solo and offshore where self rescue, for example swimming to shore, is unlikely. Many out on the water don't have a radio or if they do they often are not paying attention. With that said, it also don't hurt to have other methods to attract attention.

Whatever route, cell, vhf, or both, make sure they are usable. The thing I don't like about cell phones is the small, compact and close together buttons. I find them hard to operate when it is rough and, for where I paddle, cold.

Koacanoe, what is that Samsung waterproof flip phone? Haven't seen or heard of one, but sounds interesting. Have you tested it in rough conditions?

Also, to contact the CG using a cell you can dial *CG which works in many areas. Try that before dialing 911.

#5 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 11:18am

He might be referring to the samsung rugby. which I have personally called someone while i submersed it in a fish pond at my friends place although they don't recommend doing this it worked nonetheless. never taken it with me while paddling, don't know how the salt water would affect it. but it may work.

#6 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 12:28pm

Steve, what is the range on your VHF? It claims to be powerful at 6 watts... Just wondering what kind of range that gets you. At a $150 it seems like a pretty good deal. 5 year waterproof warranty too. Think I may have to get one.

#7 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 2:38pm

of course both would be ideal. cell is better than vhf if there is coverage. when calling 911 they will have your gps position and the 911 operator will not only contact the coast gaurd but the fire dept and lifeguards as well. in most cases fire or lifeguards are faster for near shore rescues.

#8 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 3:04pm

How does the 911 operator have your GPS position when calling from a cell phone? Does that work for all cell phones including the pay as you go type?

That Standard Horizon HX850s looks like a great deal.

#9 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 4:46pm

VHFs all operate on line of sight transmission... so it all boils down to antenna height...your height and the height of the receiving antenna. Obviously you can't get much height sitting on a realistic range is likely 2-5 miles.

#10 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 6:39pm

Thanks Steve. My next question, does anyone know if the coast guard has attennas that ar mounted at altitude on the islands? This could really increase useful range. Just a thought.

#11 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 7:44pm

Hmmm, antenna height. I hadn't thought about that as a factor for range of a hand held vhf transmission. Still, $200 (+/-) doesn't seem like a bad investment.

Does anyone know what that tower/antenna at Papaikou, north of Hilo is for?

#12 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 9:44pm

semdoug: Bought the Samsung phone from AT&T in Kapahulu almost 2 years ago and it works great taking a call on a surfski in heavy chop with legs dangling over the side and wing paddle straddling the surfski deck. I suppose taking a call under same conditions on a oc-1 would be like relaxing on a lounge chair? Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is go with local knowledge. So if all the fisherman are cruising the seas chatting on their CB radios, that's the radio of choice for me. CB radios are preferred over VHF because paddlers can chat with their spouses on land. Go with the rule of serial numbers for your location: if it is VHF go with that, but if it is CB, then I'm in the market for a powerful small waterproof one (no matter what the experts recommend).

#13 Mon, 11/29/2010 - 10:32pm

VHF is not line of sight transmission, it will penetrate and bend over obstructions (horizon etc) With VHF you don't need one large receive antenna, every boat and land based unit within range is a potential receiver, so someone is very likely to intercept your call on the emergency channel or call channel. Cell phone is a great backup, very small, long battery life and can give your location within 100ft just from tower coordinates alone.

The important part is to have the cellphone/VHF attached to your person, not to your boat. Then again if your Oc1 is more important than your life ............ (insert Pueo owners) ...haha

#14 Tue, 11/30/2010 - 11:03am

Yes, atmospherics can improve range...but line of sight is what you can always count on:

#15 Tue, 11/30/2010 - 11:18am

I thought it was against the law for use VHF on land? Unless the boat is parked on land, maybe can eh?

#16 Tue, 11/30/2010 - 11:32am

Here is the CG's website for the National Distress System and VHF coverage information. Scroll down the page to find your area. For Hawaii it is near the bottom of the page, look for Coast Guard District Fourteen. Then click on the link for a VHF coverage map of your area.

Looks like the Islands have good coverage. If choosing the VHF route it's probably a good idea to contact your local CG unit to determine if there are any local areas that have consistent VHF difficulties. Sometimes there are dead areas where it is difficult to send and receive.

#17 Tue, 11/30/2010 - 1:58pm

Marine VHF is only a portion of the VHF frequency spectrum. It is illegal to transmit on VHF Marine channels from shore without a special FCC license.

#18 Tue, 11/30/2010 - 2:08pm

Marine VHF is only a portion of the VHF frequency spectrum. It is illegal to transmit on VHF Marine channels from shore without a special FCC license.

Yep, but lot's of boaties monitor (receive) it at home for all sorts of reasons.

#19 Tue, 11/30/2010 - 3:02pm


all new cell phones are required to have a gps locater. with E911 (enhanced 911) if you are outside and have a clear view of 3 satalites your lat and long will come through to the 911 operator. even if you are incapacitated or are not sure where or how far offshore you are the 911 operator will be able to determine your location and send help.

#20 Tue, 11/30/2010 - 3:23pm


Thanks, I hadn't heard that was a reality yet.

#21 Wed, 12/01/2010 - 5:59am

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