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DSC Capable VHF/GPS Radios for Paddlers

By Tom Watson

DSC-capable radio The nearly complete upgrade to the Rescue 21 national emergency communication network being implemented by the U.S. Coast Guard fine tunes the old system used to monitor and respond to distress signals. Soon the entire coastline of the continental United States, as well as the Mississippi and Columbia River corridors will be under the umbrella of this advanced system.

While basic coverage is assured for all, many of the advanced features of this network are accessible only through marine radios that are Digital Signal Code (DSC) –capable. For the users of marine hand-held radios, there are several options to consider in order to take advantage of this new distress/messaging system.

While most dash/boat-mounted radios are DSC capable, only a few companies offer a hand-held, waterproof model suitable for use while kayaking or canoeing. Features vary slightly in this very small market so any of the brands available should serve you well. Here's a look at what's currently on the market.

STANDARD HORIZON has two DSC-capable handhelds whose capabilities and design fit perfectly into the utility communication needs of a paddler. SH's HX851 is their full size, fully submersible floating VHF/GPS marine radio.

The short list of highlighted features include a 12-channel GPS receiver that can transmit a DSC distress call, send out position data or simply call with your coordinates. A DSC menu button is prominent on the face of the radio.

Standard Horizon HX851 DSC-capable radio The floating unit glows in the dark via a gasket on the case). An SOS strobe light is automatically activated when it comes in contact with the water. The HX851 is waterproof (3-year warranty) to a depth of 3.3 feet for 30 minutes (JIS-7/IPX7 rated).

Up to 200 waypoints can be entered into the radio enabling the user to navigate to those waypoints as well as a DSC position request to the unit. All this is powered by up to 6 watts (for emergency maximum distance transmission) with additional selectable power increments of 1, 2.4 and 5 watts of normal operating draw. A lithium-ion battery is the power unit for the device that can also be recharged either at home or in vehicles with both an AC and DC charger/adapter.

Other features that offer useful functions for the paddler include a dedicated key that allows programming/quick selection of up to ten marine VHF or NOAA weather channels. It also has a storm broadcast alert capability to warn of approaching threatening weather. Other factory pre-loaded channels include the standard channels: 16/Distress, 21/U S Coast Guard and 71-Pleasure. The radio can scan a number of channels separately or between a priority channel and optional ones. A full dot matrix display includes channel name, Radio/Position, Radio/SOG/COG, waypoint navigation and compass display.

In times of emergencies the DSC functions include:

  • Distress call with position
  • All Ships
  • Urgency
  • Safety,
  • Individual Call
  • Position Request
  • Position Report
  • Group call
Standard Horizon HX471s DSC-capable radio The HX851, with case, measures about 2.5" x 5.5" x 1.75" and weighs 11.8 oz. It features a polycarbonate housing with a die-cast frame. Prices on the Internet range from $200-$275. Several sites post favorable reviews of the radio.

Standard Horizons other DSC capable radio is the new HX471S, a compact version of the HX851 as far as most functions go, but carrying an impressive menu of features of its own.

The 471S is submersible, is DSC distress call capable (with NMEA GPS position input), and offers all the necessary USA/International and Canadian marine channels and other basic features.

This compact and portable marine transceiver can also receive AM, FM and Aeronautical bands by a simple keystroke. The GPS capability is possible via a charging cradle that makes the unit operable as a DSC radio as well. Simply depressing a guarded key and the unit activates a distress signal that provides all the emergency information options built into the new DSC/Rescue 21 system. The HX471S can be used on sea or on land and features a high intensity strobe designed to be seen over a mile away.

The compact radio (2.36" x 3.78" x 1.12"; weighs 9.3 oz.) is available with either a silver or black housing around a high impact, non-corrosive die-cast chassis. Price range: $200-$240.

Lowrance LHR-80 DSC-capable radio Another major player in the DSC-family of marine radios for paddlers is LOWRANCE's LHR-80 VHF/GPS radio. It too meets JIS-7 waterproof standards – and it floats. The built-in GPS receiver includes a new track plotter screen feature (dubbed "Track-Your-Buddy") that allows boaters to pinpoint and display the exact location of other vessels using Lat-Long position polling. A push of a button sends out the radio's exact location, a function Lowrance calls their "Get Buddy" feature. Up to 500 waypoints can be stored in the LHR-80 radio as well as up to twenty "Buddies".

Other standard features include a large 128 x 128 pixel LCD with adjustable contrast and backlighting. A signal strength indicator displays the strength of incoming/outgoing signals. It too has the storm warning audible alert system built in to the unit.

The LHR-80 is powered by a 7.4-volt lithium-ion battery pack (and also features a battery life gauge) with selective 5W/1W output and extended battery life projections of 10-13 hours depending upon the output setting. The LHR-80 has a two-year warranty. (Dimension/Weight specs were not available). Internet pricing range: $200-$240. SIMRAD has a radio very similar to the Lowrance model (both are under the Navico umbrella).

ICOM M92D DSC-capable radio Another entry into the DSC-capable, hand-held marine radio market may soon be ICOM's M92D. As of January 2012 it was still waiting approval by the FCC.

A key feature of ICOM's new radio is "active noise canceling", a built-in bi-directional, off/on-controllable feature that reduces background noise to up to 90% and improves both your transmitted voice and incoming call.

The M92D also offers a new menu system that displays a bottom line of the full dot-matrix display that shows the software key functions that can be toggled with the left and right buttons.

Other features include: Built-in GPS (with compass and navigation functions, 50 waypoint memories). BTL (bridge-tied load) amplifier that doubles the audio output; face-up Float'n Flash (IPX7 submersible) with flashing LCD and audible "beep alarm" feature as an aid for retrieval in the dark; broad array of DSC-compatible features; MOB (Man Overboard) function and a draining function called AquaQuake. MSRP is $299.

It is important to remember that the standard VHF radio can utilize the new Rescue 21 system. The DSC function is an upgrade that further enhances the capabilities of the network when coupled with GPS functions.

The steady introduction of new communication appliances seems to indicate that more and more devices will be on the market within the next year – all designed to help us make that distress call faster, farther and stronger than ever before – and all with just a push of a button.

Proper sequence for making a Distress Call*:
Your first response would be to flip your distress switch on your DSC-GPS radio if you have one. Although more and more radios have automatic distress calling options, it still pays to know how to use a standard radio to verbally send a distress call:

First, go to the Hail and Distress channel: EMERGENCY CHANNEL 16:

  1. Press the Push-to-Talk button,
  2. With button down, say “MAYDAY!, MAYDAY!, MAYDAY! THIS IS __(vessel’s name)_, __(vessel’s name)_, __(vessel’s name)_,
  3. Repeat again: MAYDAY, THIS IS __(vessel’s name)__.
  4. Report your position (latitude, longitude, true or magnetic bearing (designate which one) to a well-known landmark (nav’ aid, geographical landmark, etc.).
  5. Explain the nature of the distress (sinking/capsize, life-threatening injuries, etc.).
  6. State what equipment you need (medical aid, etc.)
  7. State size of group, number in distress, types of injuries
  8. State present condition of vessel (seaworthy, damage, etc.)
  9. Description (type of boat, size, color, etc.)
  10. End message by saying "OVER", release Push-to-Talk switch and listen.
  11. If no answer, repeat, if still no answer, switch to another channel and start again.
    * Condensed from information provided by Standard Horizon

Tom Watson is an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer. He also posts articles and thoughts on his website He has written 2 books, "Kids Gone Paddlin" and "How to Think Like A Survivor" that are available on

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