VHF handheld marine radio questions

The recent discussions about kayak accidents got my attention.

I had been thinking about purchasing a handheld VHF marine radio in the future. As I plan to do more coastal paddling on Lake Michigan this summer, sooner is probably better than later.

I’ve read basic info at the West Marine website, but that’s about it. I’d like one that’s waterproof, floats, and has weather alerts.

What about a VHF/GPS combo with DSC? I’m curious about this because so far I’ve been a solo paddler and should I get into (or come across) an emergency situation, that DSC button might come in handy.

Is there that much of a difference between a dot matrix or segmented display? Is one better than the other?

Any other features to look for?

Any particular brands to avoid?

Any particular brands that stand out?


I have a Icom - IC-M24
that I like very much.

It is water proof, floats and has a red light that flashes if it gets wet, (dropped overboard at night), even if it is turned off.

It is chargeable

I used it every day for four months this past winter and it still held a full charge

When I am in big water, I don’t leave shore without it and my PLB

Jack L

I second the Icom IC-M24. It’s a great radio for the price.

Great brand. My ICOM is older than the 24 but it is still the one that works when all the newer ones can’t find a signal. And it has outlasted two West Marine units, the original and the replacement. Which are also not bad but don’t seem to be as hardy under use.

That said, my ICOM is also old and heavier and lacking in a couple of features that I now crave. The next one I get, probably for this summer season, will be sized etc to clip onto my PFD. For paddling solo, I need one on me rather than in a day hatch.

Another Icom24 user
The weather radio part seems to be very sensitive.We kayaked on Lake Superior last summer and wx stations are not close yet we never lacked for a marine forecast.

Great little radio for the price.


– Last Updated: Apr-21-15 7:38 PM EST –

An ICOM M73 {plus}...I like it.....does what I need

Best Wishes

Just remember
What ever brand and model you get have the radio ON YOU not in any hatch or attached to the deck. If you ever need it most likely you will be swimming and your kayak may be far far away so having it in your hatch or attached to your kayak kinda makes it useless. Read Deep Trouble or More Deep Trouble to see examples.

My understanding is that the DSC signal transmits a little farther than a regular voice call. Plus it gives your GPS location not only to the Coast Guard but to any power boat equipped with a DSC radio which in my area is now required for power boats.

I don’t have a DSC as every one was just a little to big to fit into my PFD radio pocket but that was a few years ago maybe they make a smaller one now? I also have a PLB but only carry it on kayak camping trips.

Thanks, all, for your good advice. Appears that ICOM would be a great choice. I have to go past West Marine tomorrow, so will stop and see if they have any in stock I can look at.

dc9mm, yes, it makes sense that it has to be attached to your person, not your boat. I think I can work that out pretty easily but I am curious about one thing: if you call for help and don’t have a DSC button, how do your would-be rescuers know precisely where you are?

Funny that you mentioned those books. Ordered both yesterday.

Coast Gaurd

– Last Updated: Apr-17-15 2:35 PM EST –

The Coast Guard helicopter can zero in on your location when you transmit. So they will have you count for a period of time to figure out your location. But DSC is better of course plus it allows any power boaters in the area to see your location too if they have a DSC radio which like I said its now required in my area for power boats.

There is a video online some were showing how the Coast Guard zeros in on your location.

Great question.

– Last Updated: Apr-17-15 3:40 PM EST –

How will the coast guard, or some other boat in a better position to assist more quickly, be able to locate you?

Once you imagine yourself out there hoping for assistance, studying charts starts to make a lot of sense. Know what landmarks and buoys are plotted on charts. Make note of these things as you pass them, and which direction you are located, and traveling, in relation to them. If you make voice contact with someone, the better you can describe your position, the better chance there is of being assisted more quickly. The more ways that you can describe your position, the more likely one of them will ring true to the first contact - which could be someone who does or doesn't map their course out on a chart.

The one time I used my Icom to call for help, I had found myself rafted up assisting another kayaker who could no longer stay upright, with another paddling his heart out with a tow line trying to keep us from being bashed into a jagged rock jetty. A nearby boat in a sheltered position responded first and relayed the call to the coast guard. First they assessed our condition - Is anyone injured? Is anyone in the drink? Are you in imminent danger? I had broadcast "pan-pan". Then they asked our location, and confirmed our location. The folks in the coast guard boat made radio contact and did the same. I'm sure if I was unable to confidently spout off our location, it would have been a terrible feeling, and perhaps the situation would have turned uglier.
Just a reminder that some old-fashioned practices in conjunction with technology can still prove prudent.

Small compact body, same long battery life as with others. Fits in a number of my pfd pockets without the antenna being in the way.

See you on the water,


The River Connection, Inc.

Hyde Park, NY



I don’t carry mine on my person
I keep it tethered to the deck.

If I carried all the crap that the safety gurus want us to, I would sink like a rock

I keep my PLB in my PFD pocket and my knife in my under deck bag

I also keep a whistle tethered to my PFD pocket

Listen to the weather report prior to going out, and adhere it, and you’ll probably never have to call for help.

Jack L

Mine is not on me either. It is tethered
to the deck

The PLB which IS on me is faster to deploy for an SOS.

Carry it on me all the time. Should you get separated from your boat you want to have it with you.

VHF line of
sight only…VHF does not transmit over the horizon or around corners. Thus VHF is useful in navigable water where vessel traffic is ongoing.

For example, alerting the Chinese lumber boat pilot that your position is stable, that you are not crossing his bow.

Burch has given his material to Google. THNAKS DAVE !


Question re Lake Michigan, coverage
Looked through the above replies and some conversation from another thread popped up in my head.

For my solo-highest-risk paddling situations, I am in an area well covered by the Coast Guard and a whole lot of working boat traffic that would respond most quickly to a call on a VHF. I know about the second bunch because I am beginning to figure out which lobster boats tend to run out of bait more than the others with it set on alert for weather.

A PLB or SPOT device would be, as was mentioned in another thread recently, considerably slower response where my highest risk is.

But I was not thinking about this when I answered this post, and it bears asking whether a PLB or a VHF would produce a faster response on Lake Michigan. Anyone know?

USCG stations

– Last Updated: Apr-17-15 11:00 PM EST –

If it makes a difference, there are USCG stations at Traverse City, Charlevoix, and St. Ignace.

Main harbors in areas where where I'll be paddling: Harbor Springs, Petoskey, Bay Harbor (private), and Charlevoix.

No working boats, but lots of sailboats.

[Edited to replace SS Marie with St. Ignace - which is in the Straits of Mackinac]

Not sure about Michigan
since I have never paddled it but on Lake Superior especially on the north (Ontario ) shore the VHF is virtually useless for rescue.

There are no working boats out there except for Great Lakes tankers and grain carriers and they are very far away.

OTOH in Pukaskwa a rescue team arrived at a scene within 45 minutes. Triggered by SPOT. The distance between rescue launch and site was 35 km

So my VHF is mainly to check weather from Environment Canada.

So your answer all depends on where you are. Here in Maine I see lots of Coast Guard and CG auxiliary boats. Getting away from working traffic too is not always easy… so the radio is of value here.

online data


to work thru… antennae height above sea level with Burch’s distance formula for your paddling if applicable.

then go to Verizon or Sprint’s cell tower coverage

of interest: http://www.islandtrunksystem.org/cms/

Stopped at West Marine to check out their VHFs. They’re selling a West Marine branded (manufactured by Uniden, made in Vietnam) waterproof, floating GPS/DSC VHF with automatic weather alerts for $229. Size was okay, weight not heavy, price is reasonable, the screen was readable. I know nothing about Uniden’s reliability.

They also offer an ICOM M92D GPS/DSC with a few more bells and whistles for $299. They did not have one on display, but the 2# weight is a negative. Also read online reviews critical of its bulkiness and difficult to read screen.

We did talk about VHF communications; he said he could easily raise the harbormaster at Harbor Springs; that’s a straight shot across the bay. I didn’t ask about the response time issue that Celia raised. Will do that on my next trip.

Since Little Traverse Bay is still frozen as far as the eye can see, looks like I have plenty of time to shop.