For the first thirty years or so that we sailed, we had a VHF radio as our only means of outside communication. This radio, which really hasn’t changed much in all the years, transmitted for about 20 miles, line of sight. You could talk to other boats, the coast guard if within range and listen to coastal weather forecasts. You could also reach a marine operator and make a very public telephone call as everyone could, and often did, listen in. Some cruisers had the very expensive, very complex SSB long range radio. You could transmit and receive across oceans. Used just to chat, or to receive offshore weather faxes, it was a valuable piece of kit.
Today, things have changed. We have the VHF, in fact, three. One at the helm, one at the chart table and a portable one for the dinghy. It has changed little over the decades but now can transmit emergency information a short distance. Another short range communication device is the AIS (automatic identification system), which transmits information on your vessel to other vessels within VHF range. I It also receives the same information. I couldn’t imagine having a boat without it. Some try to compare its value to having radar, but I think both are different enough that we need both. Many boats still don’t have AIS so you still need to watch for them. AIS can’t track weather or the shoreline. But AIS tells everyone the name of the boat (good for calling), its size, speed, course and how close it will get to you. There is also a personal AIS which we carry. It is attached to your lifejacket and should you unexpectedly leave the boat it transmits your position up to four miles. The final short range communicator is your trusty cell phone. I’m surprised as to how far and in what locations they work. Both a blessing and a curse.
For long range communication we have three devices. First, we have an Iridium Go satellite communicator. Really, just a hockey puck with fancy communication equipment embedded. You use your phone or tablet and use it as a phone (albeit expensive) or for data communications such as text, email and weather. Speeds make AOL dial up seem fast, but for simple information exchange it works worldwide. A similar device is our InReach satellite communicator. It, too, can send simple text messages. We use it primarily to track our position and report every two hours so those on shore can track our progress. We also send one of three simple daily messages to the family of the crew; “underway and safe”, “at anchor and safe”, “difficulties and will send more”. Finally, we have our EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) which transmits a worldwide distress signal with our position. Used only in a life and death situation I hope I only ever test one.
While we are certainly safer, and the ability to communicate is lovely, I have sometimes been miffed as a crew member is head down on their screen as the sun sets and a whale breaches.