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Advances in technology and digital selective calling, as well as new features, make it a good time to replace your old VHF radio


Advances in technology and digital selective calling, as well as new features, make it a good time to replace your old VHF radio

By Gordon West

It’s finally time to yank out your 4-year-old (or older) marine 25-watt VHF radio. Keep it on board as a backup, but come to grips with the fact that your old faithful radio has some life-saving deficiencies:

• Older VHFs don’t have digital selective calling distress data-burst capabilities.

• Older VHFs have no transmit timeout circuitry. A stuck mic could interrupt channel 16 distress calls and might even create a fire hazard on board if the fuse doesn’t blow or overheat.

• The master crystal in your radio’s oscillator has naturally aged, causing off-frequency operation, and garbled transmit and receive.

• The microphone connection at both the radio and at the mic may be ready to break from old age.

• Older VHFs don’t have a VHF weather alert feature.

And while you’re at it, take a look at the silver antenna connector PL-259 to be sure it is free of corrosion. Check the coaxial cable as it leads to your antenna, and carefully inspect the antenna for fiberglass cracks. Any moisture that gets into a VHF antenna system can quickly cut your range in half.

But don’t chuck the equipment overboard. As a back-up, even a 15-year-old marine VHF will allow you to holler mayday on channel 16 with nothing more than a coat hanger stuck in the back antenna terminal.

DSC important

The new Global Maritime Distress and Safety System is mandatory for all U.S. ships of 300 or more gross tons, plus passenger ships and a host of commercial boats. Recreational vessels aren’t required to carry any radio signaling equipment on board. The fact that most everyone around you has compliant GMDSS VHF radio equipment ensures your digital call won’t go unanswered.

In 1999 the Federal Communications Commission required manufacturers of newly designed marine VHF radios to include, by law, DSC. This applies to all new marine 25-watt VHF transceivers.

DSC sends and receives data bursts on VHF channel 70. This allows mariners to send an automated distress alert to all vessels and shore stations equipped with a turned-on VHF DSC radio, anywhere in the world. DSC also allows mariners to initiate and receive non-mayday traffic, such as urgency calls, safety calls, “all ships calls,” or directed calls specifically to or from your vessel to another ship or shore station.

Best of all, the data exchange over your newer model marine VHF takes place independent of where you may have set your VHF radio dial. And some very good news for offshore passages: If you see a radar target approaching on a collision course, presumably an in- or outbound cargo ship, an “all ships call” on your DSC VHF radio will trigger an alarm and switch the ship’s radio over to your voice call on VHF channel 16. No longer will you need to take evasive action because the commercial vessel must have had its VHF radio turned down. GMDSS regulations no longer will let that happen.

And finally, the Coast Guard is turning on its Rescue 21 DSC monitoring system. “The improved DSC equipment that Coast Guard group land stations and vessels are getting will give them better range, a fill of coverage gaps around the country, and will tie into a computer system to immediately launch resources to a received distress call,” says Coast Guard spokesman Ron Eldred. The Rescue 21 system should be coming on air along the East Coast this summer and fall.

Worthy of note is this: The Coast Guard makes an important point, yet omits an important one in a statement by Commander Ed Thiedeman, Rescue 21 deputy project director:

“To take advantage of the benefits of DSC, boaters need to connect the radio to a GPS receiver. We also strongly urge them to register and get a MMSI number, and make sure their registration is up to date.”

Not exactly. Obtaining the 9-digit MMSI number is an absolute requirement for your new marine VHF DSC radio to signal on channel 70. Without that 9-digit number being manually input and stored in your radio’s memory, the big red distress button won’t transmit a thing. That’s right. It won’t even signal a digital mayday to an unregistered radio — it just won’t signal anything.

To obtain an MMSI number, visit or www.sea

Your new VHF DSC radio also needs to be wired into your running GPS. This allows the distress data burst to contain not only vessel information, along with the type of alert you are sending, but also your latitude and longitude. This imbedded position report allows other non-Coast Guard vessels around you to calculate a bearing to render immediate assistance. This information also is stored on the new Rescue 21 computer database to work up drift calculations if the vessel suddenly sinks.

The new Coast Guard Rescue 21 system also will work with that older marine VHF radio, through Adcock Array direction-finding techniques from shore. But for a precise GPS position-based distress alert, a new simple 25-watt VHF with DSC, including a prememorized MMSI number and tie-in to the on-board GPS, gets you on the screens instantly. To see Rescue 21’s rollout schedule, visit

In with the new

Swapping out your trusty, old 25-watter for a new fixed-mount 25-watt VHF DSC radio will not sink your pocketbook. For around $150 you can bring aboard a new 25-watt, all-channel DSC, full-featured radio from Standard Horizon, Icom, Uniden, Cobra or West Marine. These radios also include weather alert, transmit timeout timer, rock-solid frequency stability, agile receiver scanning, plus that most important built-in circuit, digital selective calling.

Also important to note: No FCC ship station license is required for cruising domestically with marine VHF. You must apply for the 9-digit MMSI number, and this number must be manually entered into your MMSI memory circuit. Many NMEA marine electronics specialty dealers will take the added steps of securing your number and getting it programmed into the radio.

VHF radios sold through mail order or large marine retailers may sell at lower prices, but it will be up to you to do the relatively straightforward task of MMSI number programming. If you’re unable to program a VCR, get your equipment through a marine electronics specialty dealer and ask them to program the number for you.

The incredibly low $150 price tags for an entry-level 25-watt DSC VHF radio is a manufacturer marketing maneuver to entice you to buy into a particular brand name. The pitch might suggest starting off with a manufacturer’s VHF, then add its GPS, plus radar, plus depth sounder, with no integration headaches. And there is truth to what is said here; same-brand electronics facilitate easier integration for a smooth flow of data between units.

The Standard Horizon Quest includes a black or white fully submersible exterior, weather alert and microphone channel-changing, plus a display that shows your position when tied into a GPS. The Uniden Oceanus DSC low-cost VHF is waterproof but not submersible. However, Uniden makes up for this by offering the optional WHAM submersible “no wires” microphone and speaker handset, which is a full wireless remote to the VHF down below. You’ll add about $130 for this terrific second wireless station feature.

The West Marine VHF 500, seen selling around $150, also will work with the Uniden WHAM wireless microphone. This radio also includes a deck call function. Of course, the full-function DSC capabilities are built in, just waiting for an MMSI number.

The Icom M302 may be ordered in either black, white or gray, and the outside enclosure is 100-percent submersible. The radio includes weather alert, a handy feature to sound off in case your weather monitoring at low volume should stumble across the National Weather Service alerting tones. This is a good feature to look for if you cruise or operate in an area where sudden squalls pop up.

The next step up

In the under-$200 category, you will see larger LCDs, plus detachable microphones where you may wish to wire up additional controlling microphones to serve as second and third stations, along with intercom. The slight increase in price also buys you more scanning and channel sampling programs, dual and triple watch capabilities, and more choices for flush-mounting kits. Raymarine scooped the competition with the Ray 54 25-watt VHF, which offers improved DSC Class D receiver performance that continuously guards VHF channel 70, as opposed to a frequency sampling guard outlined in SC-101 recommendations. It also adds marine VHF channel usage names so that you can tell when you are on recreational channels or monitoring pilots on port operations frequencies.

It’s important to remember to use only authorized channels to communicate ship to ship, classified “intership” on the front panel display. Never use channels reserved for pilots, tugs, commercial boats and port operations. Monitor these channels only.

The ICOM 402, seen selling for less than $200, boasts a large display, is fully submersible, has a gazillion scanning features, and can easily match up with the optional Icom COMMANDMIC, which expands the VHF to a fully integrated second station communications system on board.

New on the marine VHF DSC scene is Navman’s 7100/7200 radios, capable of submersion and full DSC with GPS readout on the large LCD display, plus a 12-character channel-naming feature where you decide what to call your communications channel. And for the angler in the family, for an additional $75, you also get a digital barometer and temperature gauge to highlight favorable fishing conditions.

Also new to the marine VHF market is well-respected consumer communications electronics manufacturer Cobra, offering its MR F55 and MR F75 25-watt, white-panel, totally submersible VHF transceivers. The MR F75 includes a noise-canceling microphone that blocks background sound as well as a built-in speaker. You may look strange holding the microphone to your ear, but the speaker output on the mic is a great feature. And the way Cobra is introducing itself to the marine market is by offering all of their marine VHF equipment factory direct — almost unheard of in the marine electronics field. With a big name like Cobra, the efforts probably will pay off with big savings to you.

A step higher

In the more than $200 category, 25-watt marine VHF transceivers are sized up for those mariners and commercial operators who need a big radio that can be adjusted while wearing winter gloves. Icom America offers the M502, with capabilities for an optional voice scrambler and enough output volume to be heard over the largest of high-performance engines. Furuno private labels this same design in their FM3000, available with a full-function remote mic, like Icom with its full-function COMMANDMIC.

Standard Horizon offers the Spectrum radio, which includes a built-in 20-watt loud hailer with listen capabilities. Standard also upsizes to its new Quantum VHF, boosting loud hailer output to 30 watts along with four preprogrammed fog signals. Many Standard Horizon VHF transceivers in this price range will take the company’s RAM+ huge screen second- and third-station remote microphones.

Standard Horizon also ties in with its own line of GPS monochrome and color chart plotters taking C-MAP cartography, where DSC position polling shows up on the same big screen as chart plotting. And the company has pulled off an industry first in the relatively inexpensive line of marine VHF transceivers with DSC position polling, unique to Standard Horizon. Coast Guard Auxiliary units throughout the country are finding this feature invaluable in being able to poll auxiliary resources and see exactly where they are on the Standard Horizon chart plotter screen, automatically and without the operator of the polled vessel needing to do a thing other than keeping this feature turned on during patrols. I personally tested this with our Coast Guard Auxiliary units in Los Angeles Harbor, and it works better than advertised.

Icom goes big size and big screen with the M602 submersible, commercial-quality marine VHF with Class D DSC as an upgrade listening watch to VHF channel 70. They offer a 22-watt loud hailer and four-pattern foghorn, and the equipment can run up to two additional stations with Icom COMMANDMICs. The M602 is a perfect match to its M802 marine single sideband radio.

Simrad and Raymarine’s DSC equipment also compete at the high end. The Simrad RD68 radio is built to commercial-vessel qualifications, and I like the way the company laid out the front panel for easy pushbutton controls and the big rotary knob for channel changing. Raymarine offers its 215 DSC with a telephone handset-style remote, along with the 2301 handset for total control of the equipment without an equipment “face” to go along with it. The handset may also tie into the Raycom 3-watt marine cell phone, and can work as a standard dockside telephone handset as well.

Last but not least

A late introduction from Icom America is the M422 25-watt DSC VHF with a large LCD and built-in public address system. The new radio uses a front-firing speaker for “force 5 audio” output. The radio is backlit for nighttime operation and Icom’s COMMANDMIC is an option.

Standard adds a full Class D DSC receiver to its Quantum series of 25-watt VHF equipment. Its new Quantum GX3500S has an independent high-performance DSC channel 70 receiver so that calls won’t be missed while receiving on other channels. An alphanumeric keypad allows direct entry of channels for quick channel selection.

Standard also introduces a black box Class D 25-watt VHF, the Phantom PS2000, where the body hides out of the way yet still will take two RAM+ microphones that can control all radio functions. The Phantom also incorporates a 30-watt loud hailer. Both radios will integrate with Standard Horizon’s color plotter for position polling and charting.

You have plenty of choices when you swap out your old non-digital VHF for a new radio that includes digital selective calling. Prices range from $150 to $550 or more. What you get with higher-priced models are more features, though range on transmit will be the same and receive capabilities will generally be equal. But more features and more capabilities to add second- and third-station microphone systems, plus the advantage of built-in loud hailers and automatic fog signals, are worth the extra bucks beyond the price of an entry-level VHF.

The good old days

While there have been no major breakthroughs in VHF antennas, we have seen the switch from fiberglass-shredding big VHF antennas to the high-gloss, smooth-finish urethane radome with quality low-loss coaxial cable and improved inside brass element configurations. Shakespeare offers a patented tuned-trap network intended to minimize VHF pager interference when using your new, sensitive VHF in downtown harbors and marinas.

And I must add that marine VHF manufacturers have left out some important features formerly seen in marine VHF equipment. Features I miss are a big, bright red transmit indicator light, plus positive transmit power indicators that also alerted to a bad antenna system. The best you get on some models is a TX LCD indication that would come on if the transmitter were to go bad.

Shakespeare offers the ART-2 power meter along with antenna checks, and it also has a new all-in-one power meter that includes the first VHF receiver sensitivity test. On the new Shakespeare equipment, dial up to a specific ship-to-ship working channel, turn on the antenna and radio tester meter in line with the coaxial, and you get proof of power output as well as receiver performance. This should be built into every marine VHF radio costing more than $200.

Also missing these days is a receiver signal-strength indicator. The nature of VHF frequency modulation is to quiet background noise whether the signal is weak or strong. Without built-in S-meter signal-strength circuitry, you have no idea whether an incoming call is one mile away or 15 miles away. A VHF marine radio with a built-in signal strength meter would be a life-saving tool for search-and-rescue personnel.

But the benefit of digital selective calling in a marine VHF transceiver is of paramount importance. Both Standard Horizon and Uniden also offer full DSC capabilities in marine VHF hand-held radios. These are submersible radios and could function quite well as an emergency man-overboard alert. And as the Coast Guard Rescue 21 system comes on line, all of the DSC capabilities in both fixed-mount radios and hand-helds will be a life-saving feature when you only have enough time to lift the red plastic cover and hold the red distress button for five seconds.


Todd Crocker, marketing manager of Uniden’s marine division, believes a fixed-mount marine VHF should display more than just VHF channel numbers. To take VHF to that level, the company has developed ES Series radios with an industry-first intuitive GPS analysis circuit capable of displaying life-saving and other information.

“With our new UM825 ES, our 4-inch [diagonal], 4-level grayscale display can instantly switch from big-number VHF channel readout to steering graphics to display range and bearing to a received DSC distress call,” says Crocker. The radio also will take the GPS information and determine its built-in 60-watt loud-hailer horn pattern, recognizing inland or ocean areas, as well as stopped, moving or moving under tow.

This $599 Class D marine VHF, expected to be available at the end of 2005, also includes built-in automatic direction-finder software capable of on-screen VHF radio direction finding to any signal on the air. The ADF operation requires an additional purchase of the Uniden 4-bay Adcock array antenna system necessary for VHF ADF operation.

“Our display also features 8-by-8 zone touch screen for easy programming of the MMSI number, as well as touch screen input of VHF channels or adding information to the DSC Class D position polling circuit,” says Crocker, adding that the new equipment meets all submersibility tests, including the microphone and power connection assemblies.

This equipment also will accept up to four of Uniden’s new WHAMx4 full-function, wireless remote — as well as a hard-wire extension — speaker/microphones. The mics have full intercom capabilities between remotes, as well as between the fixed equipment simultaneous to its operation on marine VHF.

The WHAMx4 is the new breed of 2.4-GHz digital remote microphones that double as wireless half-mile communicators independent of the VHF on board. And for those of you with the original WHAM microphones, they also may be tied into the new Uniden 25-watt radio.

Uniden also has introduced the UM625c ES, which features an all-color, 2.2-inch-diagonal, daylight-viewable thin-film-transistor display. With a suggested retail price of $299, it is the industry’s first marine VHF using a color TFT display. The UM625c ES includes Uniden’s GPS intuitive circuit, which will automatically program the 30-by-2-watt loud hailer to blast signals accordingly. And it will take up to four WHAMx4 microphones.

Uniden’s new $199 UM525 VHF offers a 3-inch-diagonal black-and-white LCD, and includes a built-in 30-watt loud hailer with intercom, public address and preprogrammed fog signals. Again, it will know which fog signals to sound and when, if connected to your on-board GPS.

In addition to their large displays, the Uniden ES Series radios will include voice programming prompts and commercial-grade receivers capable of Class D enhanced digital selective calling. All equipment is submersible and offers DSC polling capabilities, as well as position output to most any on-board chart plotter.

“The new user-friendly features offered by this series, including touch screens and voice prompts, achieve a new level of quality and convenience in marine communications,” says Crocker.

Many boaters have been waiting for a marine VHF with a built-in automatic direction finder, and it was surprising to see that the ADF readout will appear on the same screen as the VHF channel readout.

“Just wait until you actually see what the screens can do,” says Crocker.

- By Gordon West


Electronic charts and navigation software

By Rich Armstrong

Associate Editor

Flashing nav aids, tides and currents, and color aerial photography are some of the features of C-MAP’s new electronic charting software, Max. Based on C-MAP NT technology, Max is designed to improve a navigator’s situational awareness. Buoys displayed on the chart plotter flash in the same sequence and color as they do on the water. The Perspective View function provides a “bird’s- eye view” of the chart, allowing boaters to change its perspective. Also, color-coded arrows and vectors on the display indicate speed and direction of the current. Other features include aerial photos or diagrams of selected marinas and harbor entrances, more than 1,000 C-Marina Charts with high-resolution detail of marinas (down to individual slips), and points of interest and facilities at various ports. Price had yet to be determined. C-MAP also has enhanced PC-Planner, its at-home cruise planner, to be compatible with Furuno GPS/chart plotters and multifunction units, including the NavNet system. New features include C-MAP’s proprietary Guardian Technology anti-grounding alarm, enhanced search modes, and user-

selectable settings. A free demo CD is available before purchase. Suggested retail price is $179 with USB Furuno FP-card reader, $149 without.

Global Navigation

Global Navigation’s NavPak software now includes an Automatic Identification System interface. The collision-avoidance system allows mariners to plot and follow AIS targets by reading their AIS transponders. Targets are plotted on the chart as symbols, which leave a trail as the target moves. The target vessel’s length, course, speed and name are among the information available. In addition to AIS, Global Navigation also enhanced the software’s Float Plan and ETA functions. NavPak Pro retails for $225, NavPak Lite for $135, and NavPak Pocket Edition for $119.


This year, Maptech is adding to its ChartKit books a companion CD-ROM with the same detail — the same GPS waypoints and preplotted courses — as the paper version in the chart book. The combination product is meant to ease the transition of navigating from paper to electronic charts. A PC running Windows 2000 or XP is required. Maptech says it is adding the companion CD without increasing the price of chart books. ChartKits that cover larger areas, such as Nantucket, Mass., to Cape May, N.J., are $129.95. Waterproof Chart books for smaller areas, such as Casco Bay to Camden, Maine, are $49.95. For pocket PCs and Palm Pilots, Maptech’s Outdoor Navigator has more than 60,000 topographical maps and nautical charts. All NOAA nautical charts, from planning charts to detailed harbor charts, are included. Suggested retail price is $19.95. At the other end of the spectrum, Maptech continues to promote its year-old i3, the touch-screen integrated system that combines navigation, radar, communications and weather. The basic navigation system (starting at $12,500) displays NOAA charts, color aerial photographs, Contour 3D charts, and coastal topographic maps. Its GPS data allows route-planning, distance and direction. Optional add-ons incorporate radar overlay, e-mail/fax/voice messaging, and weather overlays from The Weather Channel.


A joint venture with MPC Network, publishers of extensive marine directories, has yielded revised Fugawi Marine ENC software that now includes more than 25,000 marine suppliers, restaurants and boating facilities. The navigation software continues to support more than 450 free NOAA ENC coastal water and iENC inland waterway vector charts. For easier visual identification, the software plots each of 25,000-plus marine related points of interest on charts, according to the company. Marine ENC is compatible with PC, Pocket PC and Palm Pilots. Suggested retail price is $198.


In 2003, Nobeltec introduced its InSight Radar Box, a brick-shaped (11-by-6.5-by-5.2 inches) piece of hardware that, coupled with Nobeltec software, enabled radar-chart overlay on a PC. InSight Radar 2, which offered improved chart plotting and higher resolution radar imagery, debuted last year. This year Nobeltec will introduce InSight Radar 2 Black Box (IR2BB). While the first generation sold for nearly $5,500, IR2BB is four times smaller and retails for $2,999. It connects through a standard TCP/IP connection. The system works with Nobeltec’s Visual Navigation Suite and Admiral software. Nobeltec this year also plans to release InSight Sounder, a PC-based 50/200-kHz depth sounder. Details and pricing had yet to be announced. Already available is the company’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, the SLR-200. The collision avoidance unit doesn’t have a classification and doesn’t transmit data, but it is capable of receiving AIS data (vessel name, location, length, course, speed, etc.) from Class A transmitters. Suggested retail price is $1,799.


Navionics continues to increase the compatibility of its Gold XL3 charts with chart plotters from the major manufacturers. Furuno’s GP7000 GPS/WAAS plotters and Northstar’s 6000i integrated navigation network system are now compatible with Gold XL3 charts. Last year, Raymarine launched its Navionics-compatible C-Series of multifunction navigation displays. Navionics offers a trade-in program in which the company will accept digital chart cards up to six years old — even from a competitor — for credit toward the purchase of a new chart chip. Gold XL3 charts are priced at $199.


Looking to make inroads into the U.S. marine market, Canadian software company NavSim has introduced BoatCruiser, new PC-based GPS navigation software touted as intuitive and easy to learn and use. Based on the software platform of MapCruiser, the company’s proprietary navigation software, BoatCruiser adds the integration of software and hardware functionality with a vessel trajectory simulation that factors in more than 70 parameters, including wind, tides and current to depict how the boat will react in a given situation, according to the company. Features include real-time weather integration, chart quilting, and panning/zooming. BoatCruiser is compatible with Maptech charts and NOAA’s free ENC vector charts. Price is $399 (U.S.).