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The VHF that Thinks It’s a Cell Phone

Louay Habib takes a look at the outstanding features of the SAILOR  SP3515, one of the most advanced portable VHFs in the world.

It is amazing how cell phones differ from handheld VHFs as they both perform similar jobs.  Now, I am not advocating the idea of turning your portable marine radio into a games console, but one the world’s leading manufacturers of portable VHFs has borrowed a few features from cell phone development to its latest range.

Essentially, a handheld VHF radio performs a very simple job; it transmits sound waves using radio waves to a receiver which converts them back to sound waves, thus allowing a conversation between two people who are miles apart. So the humble portable VHF is a pretty basic tool and most of the models on the market have fairly similar features. So when it comes to deciding which brand to buy, what is the most important consideration?

The most important feature of all is that it is reliable; not being able to communicate with other boats or to shore can be a serious problem.
Jim Allen is the racing manager for the Volvo Ocean Race 2008-09 and it is a tough job. He is in charge of the event on the water, overseeing the Race Management team. Every start and finish of every offshore and inshore race all over the world, Allen makes sure the spectator boats stay out of harm’s way and ensures that the fastest ocean going boats in the world race fairly and safely through crowded harbours.

“Having reliable communications is absolutely essential to my job,” says Allen.  “If I am honest, in my job as race manager, the VHF radio is never something that you spend too much time thinking about, you just pick it up and use it. It is only if it doesn’t work that you realise how important it is. I have always found Sailor radios to be extremely reliable even long before I joined Volvo Ocean Race. If I was buying a radio for myself, I would definitely look at the Sailor range. They are very robust and Thrane & Thrane are very committed to making sure their products work. They have done a tremendous amount or research and development to make sure their products can stand up to the job and are designed for ease of use.”

The portable VHF radio being used by the Volvo Ocean Race will be the SAILOR SP3515 and it has some excellent features as Allen explains.
“If the race management team needs to have a private discussion, we can do so without the rest of the world listening in as the radio has a scrambler; we can discuss how the course is being set and the conditions in private. In practical terms, in the past, we had private conversations using cell phones which are not ideal; they are not designed for a marine environment, it can be difficult to get a signal and cell phones are not waterproof like this radio.

“The radio also has a red backlight which is always going to help night vision. Whilst the Volvo Ocean Race starts are always during day time, often boats are finishing at night when light pollution can be a problem, and not just for me or the team being able to read the display, but also for the competitors; as white light can be misunderstood as an obstruction.

“I have large fingers at the best of times but when I am wearing gloves, pushing buttons can be difficult. This VHF has large buttons which are much easier to use.  They do require a firm push, which can be a bit tiresome, but it also means you don’t hit a button accidentally. On that point, I think the key pad lock is a great idea; if you have a radio clipped to your belt or in a pocket, it is very easy to lean against something and activate or change a channel. If you are waiting for a transmission it won’t come through. It is something you see on virtually all cell phones but I have not seen a lock on a portable VHF before.”

The SAILOR SP3515 has some excellent features, but isn’t it time that manufacturers thought about more functions for portable VHFs? What about a data storage facility or a calendar with a reminder facility that is compatible with your laptop or PC? Better still, how about a VHF that is also a cell phone combined?

Louay Habib is a freelance yachting journalist. For the past twenty years, he has competed at yachting regattas and offshore events all over the world and represented England in the 2004 Rolex Commodore’s Cup. Habib writes for a variety of clients including the Volvo Ocean Race and the Royal Ocean Racing Club.

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