Nav-Comm for Weekend Mariners

It wasn't that long ago when electronic navigation and communication equipment were seen only aboard luxury yachts and commercial vessels. In addition, what required an entire bulkhead of mounting space can now all fit in small gym bag. The legacy equipment was big, bulky, and power hungry not to mention very expensive.

With price points now within the means of every boater, even PWC operators can be equipped with the means to call for help and communicate position. An appropriate onboard arsenal of electronics will generally reflect the type of boating, proximity to land, and local conditions that create challenges to both communication and navigation. Let's look at communications first.

Nav Comm Equipment Author's boat bag gear, including: bearing compass, VHF radio, GPS, PLB and smart phone

The advent and proliferation of cell phones has created a great communication tool for boaters. Third generation cell towers continue to expand coverage areas and bandwidth so even many remote boating locales have access. The most effective number to call for help is your local Sheriff's Marine Patrol, a good number to program in.

Incredible smart phone advances combine many marine friendly applications into one device. Although not as durable and robust as the stand alone marine units, there are many Droid and iPhone apps that include: tides, chart plotter, speed/heading, and weather among others.

The second most common communication tool is a marine VHF radio. Solid mount units will transmit to an effective range of about 20 miles. The Coast Guard monitors VHF channel 16, so just about any navigable water way can be heard. Handheld units have less power and range, but afford good backup to spotty cell coverage and cost less than a $100. A "may-day" transmission can also be effectively relayed by other boats.

If venturing off shore any distance, a portable satellite phone provides greater distance to reach out and communicate position in an emergency. Rate plans are almost the same price as early cellular and provide good coverage to about 200 miles off shore. These can even be rented on a short term basis for the duration of a trip.

When calling for help you'll be asked two important questions: nature of emergency and position (location). The old school method of establishing position employs a dead reckoning plot on a paper chart, with periodic fixes derived by triangulation. This is still a good skill, not to mention a fun one to learn, but has been surpassed by satellites and graphical plotters for most recreational boaters.

Handheld GPS chart plotters present your exact position both in graphical form on a small color screen and in terms of latitude and longitude (degrees and minutes north of the equator and west of Greenwich). This provides search and rescue a pinpoint location to find you literally anywhere on the globe.

The last high tech gym bag device worth considering is an emergency position radio beacon. Recently these have been miniaturized to the size of half a banana. "Personal location beacons" or PLB's transmit a radio signal to satellite and relay your position to a national control center, setting a rescue operation in motion. For any near coastal excursion, this is a must-have device and one you hope never to deploy but will be glad you had if the ship is going down. They are also used by back country hikers and skiers.

Portable nav-comm devices may lack the features and power of their fixed unit big brothers, but the benefit is they can always go with you regardless of the boat you are on or how long you might own it. Consider a well stocked boat bag to know your position and have the ability to call for help. Have fun and boat safe.

Jonathan Bloom is a USCG licensed Master and ASA certified sailing instructor. He can be reached via

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