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VHF radio versus cell phone--which to choose? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Carlos Alvarez   
Thursday, 03 June 2010 17:29

It's a frequent question--can't you just use your cell phone to communicate on a boat, such as dial 911 in an emergency?  The short answer is no, and there are lots of stories to illustrate why.  Read the rest of this article for one recent story.



There are three big reasons why a cell phone doesn't replace a VHF radio on a boat.  And if you're going into the ocean or a very large lake, I would say that you really must have one fixed radio and one handheld.

  • The Coast Guard is set up to triangulate VHF signals.  In some areas they have upgraded this ability so a signal can be pinpointed to a tenth of a mile very quickly.  They have no such ability for cell signals.
  • A cell phone limits you to talking to one single person.  A VHF broadcasts your situation to all nearby vessels.  There are far more rescues and assistance calls performed by other boats than by the USCG.  Chances are high, if you're near shore, that there are nearby boats ready to assist you.
  • A cell phone has very limited range compared to a VHF radio.


Here's one story that was very close to turning out much worse for the victims:


USCG: Boaters' lack of gear hurt search
By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The Coast Guard yesterday was unapologetic that it took more than 51/2 hours to locate and rescue two men from 57-degree ocean waters within sight of Cape Ann, where their 30-foot power boat sank rapidly Saturday afternoon.

The men — reportedly the owner and a prospective buyer of the boat, but who otherwise remained unidentified yesterday — were at sea discussing the sale of the Happy Days and had no electronic equipment except a disposable cell phone when the boat began taking water and went down quickly, according to Chief Petty Officer Jeff Hall, spokesman for the Coast Guard's District Boston.

Before the boat sank, the men, ages 63 and 36, were able to put on their life preservers and got off a call, apparently to 911, Hall said. The call came in a 1:35 p.m., but they were not located until around 7 p.m. and were finally picked up by a Coast Guard boat a half hour after that.

"They didn't do too much to help," Hall said.

Chris Sparkman, chief warrant officer of Station Gloucester, said the caller indicated that Thacher Island, "with its twin light towers," could be seen, but Sparkman added the caller seemed unsure, and said perhaps he saw three towers — possibly the coal power plant in Salem.

Sparkman said he believed the boat departed from Danvers, which would have taken the men out past Salem.

The Coast Guard launched all three of its rescue boats from Gloucester, brought in one from Newburyport and directed a helicopter and a jet, which was already out, to join the search.

"We had two floating heads out in the ocean, it just takes time," Hall said. "It's a miracle they were alive."

Water temperature was 57 to 58 degrees, which, according to the website Boatsafe.com, would have rendered the men unconscious in no more than two hours. Maximum survival time in that temperature water was given as six hours.

The survivors were taken by helicopter to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with hypothermia.

They were released, and Hall said yesterday he was trying to contact them to obtain their permission to serve as public examples of how not to go to sea.

"Their names are not releasable right now," he said.

Even if they had a handheld VHF radio — allowing an SOS on Channel 16, the universal channel for essential marine communications including maydays — the close call would probably not have been, Hall said.

He said the one cell phone call mentioned that a party fishing boat was in sight, and with a VHF radio, the location and dire circumstances would have been picked up by the fishing boat and the men would have been taken out of the water relatively quickly."

"We had a hard time tracking the (cell phone)," he said.


Last Updated on Friday, 04 June 2010 13:56
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