Call me a contradiction in style, but here I am sitting in my wood-fired office on our alternatively powered spread with no less than four modes of telecommunication at hand: telephone, computer, walkie-talkie and VHF radio.
That said, let’s take a minute and focus on the hand-held VHF radio as it applies to kayaking. When my friends and I paddle coastal British Columbia, our usual haunt, we rely heavily on a radio. Not only does it bring in the valuable, if mercurial, weather data (we need all the prescience we can manage in a small boat on the Pacific Northwest Coast), but it provides a number of other different communication possibilities as well, including: emergency communication capability for medical consultation, a link with our point of contact ashore, global telephone communications via the Marine Operator (for a pretty penny), and lastly, a handy way to keep our party in touch on the water.
Face it. Few of us are into water sports because we like technical equipment. I took a GPS on a three month trip and never took it out of the bottom of the boat; it’s just about the last place we want to fiddle with digital. But when it comes to communication issues on the water, particularly when you’re well away from the long arm of civilization, enough technical savvy to manage a radio link to the outside when you want to is a very good thing.
You won’t burn many brain cells trying to figure it out, either. Top of the line VHF radios of today are waterproof, durable, have a long battery life and are easier than ever to use. Even an entry level set will have features most of us will never use, but their basic operation is as straightforward as pushing a couple of buttons and knowing the protocol of radioese. Suffice the scope of this article to discuss some helpful, practical aspects of using a VHF radio while kayaking, and in particular, the M-88, as it is the latest of the ontogeny of proven Icom radios we’ve used over the years and one of two models I would recommend to readers, the other being their excellent M-IV.
Tip #1: Don’t lowball the purchase
Like the age-old advice: marry well, don’t pick a crappy radio for a partner. You’ll pay a couple of hundred bucks for a good radio, less if you’re a smart shopper (check out the M-IV for under $200 on Ebay). I’ve dragged my Icoms down 1,000-plus miles of rugged, sandy, soggy coastline over the years and each model is still ticking. Starting with the M-15 in the early nineties, I moved to a M-IV when it came along about five years later and use an M-88 now. Actually, we use all three even now, depending on how large a group we are. Whatever you decide on, though, make sure it’s waterproof, compact and manufactured by a reliable company with a good track record.
Tip #2: Keep it on your person.
You can’t use it if you can’t find it. When trouble hits, it may hit harder and faster than you anticipated. Worst case you’ll find yourself separated from the boat; if that should happen when you’re a mile offshore on a nice day in hell you’ll wish you could call in the calvary.
If the radio is not compact and waterproof, it’ll be problematic to have hanging on your chest. One good splash, or at the least, one good immersion, will take care of the circuitry; as for size, you won’t want a big box of metal and plastic banging around and getting in the way of paddling for long. Buy the smallest, most reliable little radio you can afford for kayaking. Like binoculars, little ones get used.
I like to position mine on my chest so it’s free of my lap and out of the way of my paddling. The knife lash tab on your PFD might be a good bet, or if you have a pocket like on a Kokatat vest, you can stick it there. The M-88 comes with a flexible loop that is long enough to go around the radio, thereby making it easy to tether for added security. When the radio is situated high on the chest, all you have to do to transmit is push the button and talk. Ditto if it’s in the pocket, but you might have to talk out of the bottom of your mouth.
Taking a closer look at the waterproof issue, the better VHF radios are not necessarily waterproof, only guaranteed to be such, a not so subtle distinction when you’re on a remote coast for a month. What that means is that if yours takes on water, they will repair or replace it for free when you get home. That’s nice, but not much help really when you’re still in the field. This is an ounce/pound equation, and keeping the unit in a waterproof bag when you’re on the water is a smart idea. There are bags designed specifically to handle VHFs and cell phones around water. Frankly, I’ve avoided this and had good results with my radios. I do tuck mine behind my vest when though, in rain and splash.
Tip #3: Know thy channels
There are more channels and features on these new radios than a duck has feathers, but probably only a few are of importance to you. Channel 16, of course, is the Coast Guard emergency contact station and is monitored by the marine community (with the possible exception of kayakers).
You can also use 16 to initiate communication with another boater. When they respond, suggest another channel. These channels are typically a good bet for ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore: 09, 67, 68, 69, 72 or 73. You may find certain channels are monitored in certain locales. Find that and you can more easily access local knowledge.
Other channels are designated for different functions and agencies and it isn’t appropriate to use them. One of the nice things about the M-88 is the digital readout that gives you the area of each channel as you access it. Again, these may vary from place to place, especially in foreign waters. For a comprehensive look at bands and channels and protocol, not to mention the need, if any, for licensing, contact the Coast Guard or the FCC (contact info in side-bar). Both the Canadian and US offices of the Coast Guard have booklets to help people applying for an operator’s license. Even if you choose not to apply for a license, this is a valuable booklet to increase your proficiency with the radio.
Perhaps the most oft used function for most sea kayakers is accessing the local weather. There are 10 channels devoted to weather. On the M-88, select the WX button and it will put you in the vicinity. Simply scroll along until you get the best reception, which, interestingly, will change from week to week as you travel along the coast. Channels 21 International and 21b are also weather channels. Contact NOAA for some handy weather forecast interpretation booklets and pamphlets.
Tip #4: Use multiple radios as a group
If you’ve got a pair of radios along (or more) you can use them to coordinate on the water, no small thing. Say you’ve got units at point and sweep and the sun is beginning to accelerate its dive into the Pacific and it’s time to settle on a camp. Your point paddler is a greyhound and shoots on ahead along the coast to scout. He finds nothing better than what you’ve already seen and radios back. You spin the group around and return to the last decent out in the mini-cove with the little creek just five minutes back.
Or maybe five of you are trolling flies for dinner and you suddenly hook into a 12-pound king. When it’s dispatched and lying in your lap you get on the horn to announce that dinner’s in the bag and it’s catch and release time.
For serious kayak expeditions, tours or treks, the ability to stay in touch within a group of paddlers is a distinct bonus. We use ours from shore to ship also, to monitor when someone or a small group is paddling out after dinner or exploring out of camp. You’ll find that you use considerably more power under such conditions though, and may have to dampen the desire to exchange casual witticisms. Having a second radio also means you’ve got a spare in case one goes down.
Tip #5: Establish a contact person
Perhaps the most important function of the little radio for sea kayakers on a remote trip of some duration, other than the potential to rescue, is to touch in with the team’s contact person. Any well-planned kayak expedition of length will have a contact person. When I paddled alone down the outside of the Charlottes for example, my point of contact was Moresby Explorers. Out for nearly two months, they coordinated my resupply needs, relayed the happy news of the birth of my granddaughter, and were available to handle any logistical vagaries that might arise.
While a contact person may not always be within direct line of sight of the radio, they can be reached via a Marine Operator. And if they have an 800#, it makes it all the easier. Check with local water taxis, transport companies, outfitters to see if they will serve in this capacity for you for a small fee. You can always use a home number and serve double duty checking in with the spouse periodically, but someone closer to the area you are paddling and savvy with local contacts is usually a better bet.
Tip #6: Understand squelch
An easy one: Know thy squelch. Your radio will have a squelch button or dial that you can activate to save power and bothersome noise. It simply cuts off reception until a clear signal comes through. Turn the dial until the hiss or static goes away. To try and hear a distant signal, turn it off.
Tip #7: Sustainable power
Okay, here’s the dirt on keeping your radio in juice for an extended stay in the field. While a thorough knowledge of operation of a VHF radio can be a handy thing at times, it is a patch on the ability to keep your radio powered up on a long haul. That said, battery tech has found a decent imitation of the Fountain of Youth. The M-88 has amazing battery life with its Li-ion battery, and the M-IV with its Lithium battery isn’t far behind. While battery life in reception mode might be 15 to 20 hrs, it drops like a stone when you push that PTT button, slicing way down to 20 to 30 minutes of transmit time. A chat via hand-helds can be a costly proposition.
The trick is to limit use or bring more batteries. To economize, transmit only when you need to, and try and get the latest weather forecast on a regular basis, not every time you feel like it. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for an exchange of interesting or useful information or emotion, but avoid the I talk therefore I am syndrome when you’re bored. NOAA revises the forecasts 4 times a day; if you know their schedule you can more efficiently pick up the new prognostication (like that word).
I don’t generally monitor channel 16 in a kayak with a hand-held unless there is something going on that I’m involved in. It’s not practical. If you need to stay open to receiving messages from someone in particular, schedule a window of time to have the radio on, say 15-minutes at five o’clock If you’re on a weekend trip, I wouldn’t worry much about power consumption, unless you’ll be calling in to check stocks every hour. But for a decent period of time on the water of, say, a week to several weeks or more, I’d carry back-up power.
The M-88 has three power modes. Five watts for the long distance needs, three watts for in between and one watt for close use. Talk with the salesman for details on this when you purchase your radio, but it’s pretty straightforward. More watts uses more power means less time. Use the power setting relevant to your needs.
Keep your transmissions to a minimum, unless you have some means of replenishing power. We took an Icom M-IV out for nearly a month and used it fairly often in both broadcast and listening modes. One spare battery was all that was required and I didn’t have to snap it in until week three. Rechargeable batteries do have a life span, perhaps two years or longer, depending on the maintenance you give them. This will be outlined in the manual provided with purchase.
Not all hand-helds offer AA battery packs as options; in the event they do, you can more easily back up your power. In fact, this is a good criteria to add to your list for purchasing a unit. The M-88 has provision for both. Their Li-ion battery alone, though, is enough for most paddling venues. For a moderate-length trip you can carry a spare and for a longer trip you can buy an adaptor to use the AAs.
The M-88, like most quality radios, come with a DC power cable to use with a cigarette lighter-style receptacle. On a trip that will take you by the odd fishing village, floating logging camp, or even an amenable pleasure or fishing boat, you can usually find a way to charge up. Paddling around Vancouver Island, I would slip into a local library or kayak shop to plug in a fast charger while I did errands around town. Note that the charger supplied with your radio is likely a slow charge model. The M-88, for example, comes stock with a unit that takes 9 to 10 hours to do its thing, while their optional fast charger takes only two or three. Just as likely as the sweet old librarian in Port McNeil is the loan of a plug from a friendly captain mooring his boat in the cove with you overnight. Point is – going prepared to take advantage of such an option makes it possible. This necessitates, of course, having to haul the charger base and plug around with you; not always the most practical solution.
Probably the most extreme idea is to take along a roll up solar panel to recharge rechargeable batteries, Ni-Cads I particular. Given the increased run time with improved battery tech of late, this option is less attractive…perhaps if you’re out for a very long time in sunny climes with a collection of rechargeable needs.
Lastly, disconnect your batteries when the radio isn’t being used for a long while, like in transit to and from the water.
Tip #8: Know thy lingo
There are three major user calls associated with marine use. If you are in need of emergency help punch in 16 and repeat May-Day three times. Stay on the line to answer important questions from the Coast Guard when they answer. If your need is strong but not dire, repeat Pan-Pan three times. Whichever, be prepared to calmly describe your condition, whereabouts, description and location of your party. If you need to communicate something with other ships, say you’re about to cross a channel in fog and want to give the captains a quick heads up, repeat Security three times, then announce your intentions and wait for a response…that’s pronounced Su-cure-uh-tay, at least in Canada.
It was raining buckets and blowing hard that night when I scuttled into my tent and dialed up the latest weather forecast for the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. “Security, security, security,” the voice on the radio repeated. “Four kayakers reported overdue, last seen in Winter Harbour…” The message included a full description of our party down to colour of boats and preference for facial hair, per the sail plan we’d filed with the coast guard prior to launch. Pinned in a pocket cove near the tip of the Brooks Peninsula for three days after having been pinned up coast for eight, we were running late and couldn’t hail anyone. Once we got on the water though and had a decent line of sight we reported in.
Tip #9: Antenna tips
Making a radio connection when you’re sitting a couple inches off the water can be dicey at times. VHF radio wave travels in a straight line. Sitting in your kayak that might only be about five miles over the water, but over 20 if you’re shooting for a tower on a mountaintop. Even hailing a passing ship can be iffy from your kayak. If the ship operator is not paying attention to Channel 16 or can’t be bothered with kayakers, your call may go unrequited. More reliable than ship-to-ship communication is ship to Coast Guard or BC Tel transceivers. Situated on the highest mountaintops along the northwest coast, a series of broadcast transmitters provide overlapping coverage for mariners…unless that is, you’re tucked deep up a fjord somewhere, often the case for kayakers.
There are a couple of things you can do to improve reception and to increase your chance of a transmission reaching your destination. Simply moving around, paddling or walking around with your radio can drastically improve reception. The universe is a magical place and standing in just the right spot can make the difference between getting the latest weather forecast and silence. Rounding a point in your boat can open new transmission vistas, as can hiking a hill out of camp.
Another idea is an auxiliary antenna-if you can find one. A brief search on the Internet and chat with Tech Support at Icom, yielded nothing. I’ve a hunch you can find a telescoping unit that will screw right onto the spot where your rubber one does. This should improve reception in iffy areas, but won’t do much to maintain waterproofness, not to mention fitting in that watertight bag.
Tip #10: Swizzle Stick
Last, and maybe not as potentially important as other tips, but a regular AM occurrence in my tent at least, the rubberized antenna makes a handy tool for stirring morning coffee. And, of course, tea in the evening.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.