At the Small Reach Regatta in Maine, we host some 70 oar-and-sail boats, and have a number of support boats, all in an area well away from Coast Guard or other emergency support. So, we require everyone to carry a VHF. The boats range from 13′ to 20′, have a wide variety of sailing rigs, and don’t all get underway at the same time, so the fleet spreads out over many miles. It has been a challenge to communicate with everyone and to get a message from the front of the fleet to the rear.
VHF radios, like cell phones, are limited to line of sight. The Coast Guard sets its antennas up as high as possible, often in spots remote from their base, to cover a wide area. The range, or “radio horizon,” for a handheld VHF in a small boat could be as little as 2.5 miles if the user is seated, with the radio only about 4′ off the water. If you are trying to communicate with another handheld, 5 miles might be your outer limit.
A second limit is set by the way we use VHFs. In simple terms, your signal radiates out in a plane perpendicular to the antenna. If you angle your VHF, that signal plane tilts too, and may be over some recipients or fall short of others. It may be degraded further if your recipient’s plane is not aligned with yours. So, handheld VHFs work better held vertically.
Larger boats put antennas on top of deckhouses or masts to increase their VHF range: a height of 9’ would reach someone 7 miles away with a handheld VHF in a small boat; 16′ would reach them 9 miles away. As a sometimes driver of a Maine Island Trail Association (MITA) chase boat, I started thinking about how to connect a taller antenna to my handheld VHF. It was pretty simple. I had a handy 8′ pole, and bought a simple whip antenna which promised a 3Db gain, doubling my effective output power. A length of coaxial connects the antenna to the radio.
Only some handheld VHFs will connect to coaxial cable. You can tell if yours can when you unscrew the antenna and find a small coaxial fitting. To connect the cable to the radio, you will need an adapter—one end to fit your VHF and the other to fit a PL-259 plug on the end of an RG-58 coaxial cable. I bought a cable long enough to run down the pole and allow me to operate the VHF while at the helm or pass it to a crew member.
With the antenna up at 9′, I could be at the front or the rear of the widespread regatta fleet and everyone could hear me. Problem solved.
If you are in areas frequented by other boaters, the antenna on your handheld will be fine. Your communications will improve if you can stand and hold the unit upright. But if you are off the beaten path, a fixed antenna, elevated on a mast or a dedicated pole, could help.
Ben Fuller, curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, has been messing about in small boats for a very long time. He is owned by a dozen or more boats ranging from an International Canoe to a faering.
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