When in trouble at sea and considering emergency communications, boaters should keep in mind the following:
A VHF radio allows broadcast capability to multiple listeners and stations while cell phones limit communication to point-to-point contact.
It is much easier for rescuers to track the direction of a VHF radio transmission but cannot isolate the direction of a cellular signal.
VHF radios allow mariners to receive emergency broadcasts, weather information and other potentially life-saving messages while cell phones are not capable of receiving these broadcasts.
Additionally, cell phones often have weak signals offshore.
"You cannot beat a VHF radio for communication," said Al Johnson, boating safety coordinator with the Coast Guard.
The international VHF distress frequency, 156.8 MHz, is found on channel 16 and monitored 24 hours a day. This channel cannot be monitored or used with cell phones.
A backup method of contacting the Coast Guard, with certain cellular coverage is to dial *CG, which is a system enacted by individual cellular phone companies as a means of contacting the Coast Guard in case of emergency. Using this system, boaters in distress can dial *CG on their cell phones to contact a local Coast Guard operations center.
The Coast Guard, however doesn't guarantee cell phone signal coverage on the high seas, nor does it force or encourage cell phone companies to set up a *CG program for their network, which was never meant to replace the established VHF marine radio. That's why they stress to boaters that it's a secondary system.
VHF marine radios can be found in most any marine store and are relatively inexpensive, starting at $100 for an investment that could save you a lot of grief, if not your life.