Paddle Smart - Marine Electronic Tips

Today's electronic devices are small, packed with loads of user-oriented functions, and are often waterproof or at least water-resistant. Several of these devices are ideal for accompanying a voyaging paddler and are worth considering for a spot in your on-board duffle. 

To protect these devices, while on the water, there are numerous watertight containers or pouches on the market which can be purchased at your local sporting goods store. 

Among these electronic devices are cell phones, handheld VHF radios, personal two-way radio communications, handheld GPS receivers, and handheld combined GPS / VHF radios with Digital Selective Calling (DSC). All DSC radios can automatically send a distress alert and message to coast stations and other DSC equipped vessels in the immediate area, at the press of a button. This capability is available now in coastal regions and planned for expansion inland in the next few years.

We will explore some of the pros and cons of each. 

Cell Telephones: are popular for land communications and are probably the most common units considered for an on-the-water trip. On small lakes and rivers, they may be useful for contacting local law authorities. However, their value on major waterways or large rivers is more limited. They cannot provide direct contact with Coast Guard rescue vessels or aircraft. Other individuals or boats that may be in a position to help you cannot hear emergency telephone calls. Cell phones don't produce radio signals which Coast Guard radio-directional-finding equipment can home-in on to determine your position. Also, cell phone coverage can be intermittent or spotty, particularly in more remote areas. Noting the above limitations, cell phones may add a measure of safety for paddlers in case of emergency or unexpected adverse weather conditions. Recognize that coverage may be intermittent or spotty, particularly in remote ares. Most of these units are not water-resistant and must be protected accordingly. 

Very High Frequency (VHF) Marine Radios: are the main two-way communication device utilized by boaters while on coastal and large bodies of water. These radios are offered in handheld, water-resistant, or waterproof housings which are ideal for paddlers. They are the best method of communication with the Coast Guard or another boat and should be considered as the priority choice by paddlers who are going to be on a major waterway or lake. A handheld radio usually transmits within 1 to 5 watts and has a range of a few miles. The Coast Guard monitors Channel 16 twenty-four hours a day. In a distress situation, using Channel 16 not only alerts emergency dispatchers, such as marine police and the Coast Guard, but all other boats within range. Quite often the boat nearest an emergency is another recreational vessel; police and Coast Guard units may be miles away. VHF radios are also capable of receiving marine weather forecasts, making them a key safety device for boaters. NOTE: it is illegal for a recreational boater to use a marine VHF radio on shore. They are intended for use while on the water only. A license is not required to operate a VHF radio within the United States; a license is necessary if you operate the unit in another country. 

Personal Two-Way Communicators: are part of the Family Radio Service (FRS) put in place by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for general public use. These units are relatively inexpensive and are useful in casual, pre-coordinated communications between paddlers traveling together on a cruise. The Coast Guard and marine police do not monitor two-way personal radios, and they have very limited use as a safety radio. Their range is typically under a mile or two and is highly dependent upon terrain. 

Global Positioning System (GPS) Receivers: allow you to pinpoint your location with great precision using coordinates provided by the GPS--typically either Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates for use with a topographical map, or latitude (L) and longitude (Lo) for a nautical chart. Make sure your GPS is set up to the appropriate coordinate system for your map or chart. A GPS can be extremely helpful to a paddler who is traveling a body of water for the first time as, when afloat, it is very easy to become disoriented and lose your way. And, in situations of restricted visibility, it may not be possible to pick out familiar landmarks. GPS units not only readily display your position coordinates, but contain much more data valuable to a voyaging paddler. Using a technique called waypoint navigation, you can plan your trip prior to leaving home and establish a series of straight-line segments (called "legs") ending at waypoints, or checkpoints, along your route. The GPS then provides the distance and direction between waypoints and your progress toward each waypoint while en route. GPS receivers are specialized radio receivers capable of receiving coded signals from as many as 12 satellites simultaneously. A clear view to the satellites across a relatively wide expanse of the sky is necessary to obtain a quality fix. Most GPS receivers are capable of determining a position within an accuracy of 3 to 10 meters. In addition to providing a Position Screen with your current position, most GPS models display other very useful information such as an analog compass screen presenting your actual Course Over Ground, Speed Over Ground, a Trip Odometer, Altitude, and Time. Many of the data fields are user-selectable from a repertoire of choices that can be set using menus. A GPS unit should be used in conjunction with a nautical chart or a topographical map as a GPS does not, without chart data stored in the unit, consider water depths or hazards to navigation such as rocks and shoals. 

You can gain skill in the proper use of your GPS unit and chart or topographical map with Practice - Practice - Practice.

Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS): is operational for recreational boaters as part of the Rescue 21 system managed by the USCG. The Digital Selective Calling (DSC) marine VHF radio is a component of the GMDSS that may be used by recreational boaters. DSC radios are readily identifiable by the distinctive, dedicated red button marked “DISTRESS,” usually with a protective red cover. All DSC radios can automatically send a DISTRESS alert and message to coast stations and other DSC equipped vessels in the immediate area, at the press of the red button. When interfaced with a GPS, preferably a handheld combined GPS / VHF radio, the automated Distress message provides information as to the identity of the vessel, nature of the distress, location of the vessel, and sounds an alarm at other DSC equipped stations. DSC equipped vessels are assigned a unique 9-diget identity number, known as a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. The MMSI may be obtained through the USPS. GMDSS and Rescue 21 is currently operational in US coastal waters. Expansion of the system inland is pending completion of sites on major waterways.

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Page updated July 8, 2016