Watch any Hollywood movie about sailing the high seas, and you’ll likely see a captain or crew member using a marine radio. Whether it’s a chat with another vessel or issuing a mayday call, marine radios have long been the accepted way to communicate on the water. Marine radio technology has been around since 1899. A hundred and twenty-five years later, some people question whether it still makes sense for boaters, particularly recreational boaters, to have a marine VHF on board.

In an age where everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, do we really need a VHF anymore? Let’s be honest – it’s pretty easy to pull your phone out, dial a number, and reach whoever you need to talk to. Has the marine radio outlived its usefulness? I say no. In fact, I believe there are some things a marine VHF can do that your smartphone cannot. Here are some reasons why you should still have that VHF on your boat.

Reliance on land-based infrastructure

This is probably the most obvious reason to keep your marine VHF. If you’ve ever gone offshore more than 15 or 20 miles, you’ve probably noticed your cell phone no longer works. That’s because it can no longer connect to a tower to make and receive calls. If your vessel has a cell signal booster, you may be able to go a bit farther out, but eventually, your phone will become useless. A marine radio does not rely on any land-based structure and will work regardless of how far from shore you are.

The environment

Have you ever dropped your cell phone in the lake? It’s kind of hard to use it when it’s 50 feet below the surface. Even if you do retrieve it, it may not work due to water intrusion. Yes, many phones are waterproof these days, but they still aren’t designed to handle the harsh environment you may encounter on a boat. On many vessels, the marine radio is affixed to the vessel, so it cannot be dropped overboard. Handheld models often float and are not harmed by water or salt. Think about it: events like storms or rough seas often lead to the need to call for assistance. These same conditions can also make it impossible to use a cell phone due to damage or loss.

Broadcast transmission

Let’s assume you experience an emergency on the water and need help quickly. You can use your cell phone to make a call, reaching one contact. If you call emergency services, they can then reach out to a resource near you to come assist.

However, if you use your VHF radio, you can immediately reach multiple contacts, including nearby emergency services. All of the contacts you make are already in the area where you are experiencing the emergency.

DSC (Digital Selective Calling)

Newer marine radios have Digital Selective Calling. This service allows you to do multiple things, but one of the most important is the “Mayday” button. If your vessel has this type of radio, hitting one button automatically sends a Mayday signal to other vessels in the area, including emergency vessels. If your vessel also has a compatible GPS, the emergency signal will contain your vessel’s location. This tool can be a lifesaver if you are unable to use the radio or if there is a passenger unfamiliar with how to use it.

Marine radios have other advantages, such as special channels for NOAA Weather and the ability to speak directly to bridge and lock masters. They also make it easy to communicate with other vessels in the area to confirm intended courses and share navigation information. If I were you, I wouldn’t throw out that marine radio. In fact, I’d start learning more about how to use it.