Make the Most of Your VHF Remote Microphone

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Second to None

Remote-mic VHF setups do more than ever.
What will they do for you?

Ever see an experienced couple dock their boat? No shouting, no problems, just pure harmony in action. Some of them use hand signals. Others have nifty headsets. Still others place a remote-mic station with a hailer on the boat wherever they know they’re going to need to be.

Standard Horizon Matrix GX2200 VHF

“You’ve got a hailer feature so that you can talk to different stations,” says Brian Coleman of Coleman Marine Systems (www.colemanmarinesystems.com), a full service electronics dealer who regularly puts in VHF systems with multiple stations. “The hailer allows them to talk back without pushing a button. In my personal situation, we go out the locks [in Seattle] to get to salt water and my wife is either on the aft deck or the foredeck and the hailers allow us to communicate without using headsets.”

IC-M506

Coleman knows it’s all about communication. But the last thing a skipper should want is for the crew on deck to need to push a button to speak—using a hand that could better serve handling lines or even holding on to the boat. “All she has to do is face the general direction and I can hear her, crystal clear, from the helm,” Coleman says. And onboard communication between stations is private, so no worries about eavesdroppers.

The Simrad RS90

Remote-access or second-station microphones can connect a boater to a fixed-mount VHF at the lower helm from another location on board, whether it’s the flying bridge, the cockpit, the main saloon, or anywhere else you can think of, or all of the above. That’s because the manufacturers have made the wiring for these second stations simpler for installers, created units that can manage up to six stations, and in some cases have eliminated the wires altogether with wireless units. And there are reasons the manufacturers have gone to such an effort—and boaters want their VHF radios with them. VHF offers critical safety features just as well as they always have, while continuing to add more functionality than ever before.

HS35 remote second-station handset

If you haven’t seen a recently installed second-station mic for a VHF, you may not recognize it. The displays show loads of data, far beyond the channel in huge digits (though you can still set it for that), thanks to information from integrated AIS and GPS (today both receivers may be contained within the fixed-mount VHF itself) and access to even more. Since the radio is often put on the NMEA 2000 backbone, the benefits of the data it compiles are shared across the system.

“If you’re sitting at anchor and you leave the helm and go to another station, in say, the cockpit, which may not have any instrumentation, you can see on the HS90 handset if you’ve started to make a couple of knots of speed over ground, which would give you the indication that something’s not quite right,” says Mat Hooper, global training director for Navico, which consists of the Simrad (www.simrad-yachting.com), B&G, GoFree, and Lowrance electronics brands. “It repeats wind information and depth as well so if you’re having lunch, you can take a quick glance to see if maybe the tide’s dropping out on you.” Simrad’s RS35 fixed-mount VHF radio ($399) can support two wireless HS35 remote handsets ($169, not for use simultaneously), while the company’s RS90 black-box VHF ($799) can support two HS35 wireless handsets and up to four HS90 wired stations.

Connecting to a single, fixed-mount VHF has plenty of advantages. Aside from the intercom feature mentioned earlier, there are plenty of other ways to make the most of the powerful VHF on your boat.

First of all, a single radio unit with multiple stations lets you have all the safety benefits of a VHF where you want to use it, but without requiring separate antennas. The best part is this: As VHF has become even more useful with the advent of Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and built-in GPS and AIS, the second-station mics have, for the most part, kept up that blistering development pace. Some installations use a black-box VHF to serve those remote microphones, while others bury a full fixed-mount unit, usually protected by the face cover, somewhere in the helm console, out of sight yet still accessible if unused. “Because of the remote access microphone’s size compared to the whole radio sitting out on the console, some people hide the main radio,” says Jason Kennedy, executive vice president of Standard Horizon (www.standardhorizon.com). “There are so many different applications of the remote microphone: It’s nice to have a full 25 watts of power anywhere you need it, rather than using a handheld. And on larger vessels, like sportfishers, sometimes they mount a remote microphone in the cockpit so they can talk to the captain using the intercom feature.” Kennedy outlined a setup of putting a fixed-mount Standard Horizon GX1600 ($169.99) inside the console on even a 20-foot RIB with a RAM3 microphone ($99.99) on the helm, to get all the functionality of that slim fixed-mount model, without taking up too much helm-console real estate. Kennedy was careful to note that every boat should carry at least one handheld as well, as a backup.

Ray70 fixed-mount VHF

Having the AIS built into the radio is a big plus, since it precludes the need for an additional antenna for that system as well as simplifying the interface with the VHF. “On our IC-M506, users have the capability of showing the AIS targets on the Commandmic display,” says David McLain, national sales manager for ICOM America (www.icomamerica.com). “So you can have the whole screen show AIS information when you want, or big channel numbers.” ICOM America offers multiple versions of its fixed-mount IC-M506 (starting at $549.99) to connect to NMEA 2000 networks or NMEA 0183 backbones.

Raymarine RayMic

Raymarine’s new Ray70 VHF ($649.99, www.raymarine.com) ­ also has a built-in AIS and a second-station RayMic ($179.99) to offer all the main unit’s functionality with a case consistent with the company’s sleek new helm arrays. Garmin (www.garmin.com) went the black-box route with its VHF 300 ($999.99 with built-in AIS, $699.99 without it), which comes with a wired GHS 10 handset, but can also work with the company’s wireless GHS 20 remote handset ($299.99). With AIS information displayed on the second-station mic, improving communication with the boats and ships you’re seeing on AIS is simpler than ever, from anywhere on your boat.

DSC, though required on all new radios, is often a lost benefit since an astonishing number of these units are never connected to a GPS. While connecting a VHF to an NMEA 2000 network solves this, Standard Horizon, ICOM America, and Raymarine offer GPS receivers built in to some fixed-mount units in their lines. Some of the GPS receivers are reported to work even when the unit is mounted beneath a hardtop or at the belowdecks nav station on a sailboat. That data is of course shared with all connected stations. And the DSC distress function is also available, with the system’s full 25 watts of power and main-ship antenna. “Remember line of sight and the height of that antenna will determine your range,” Kennedy says.

Even with multiple VHF stations, from the DSC perspective, of course the boat should be registered with a single MMSI number. The nine-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number identifies your boat over VHF DSC and AIS systems. All equipment requiring one onboard your boat, including AIS should have the same MMSI number. Get your number either by visiting www.boatus.com/mmsi/ or www.fcc.gov/Forms/Form605/605.html (how you use your boat may require you go straight to the FCC). Fill out the form and connect your VHF to a GPS. It could save your life. “You don’t have to program the second station with an MMSI number—that uses the information from the fixed-mount,” McLain says. “If you have a handheld that has GPS and you don’t have a tender or smaller boat, I would say use the same MMSI number for that. This is a gray area—there is no right answer, and this is common sense to me and what I tell customers. So if you only have one boat and you’re using the handheld VHF on the boat, use that same MMSI number. But if you have a small boat and you’re using the VHF on the tender I would register a separate MMSI number for that small boat.”

Either way, with all the improvements in communication of these VHF systems, these are good problems to have, and good questions to answer.

VHF Safety in Reserve ▶

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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