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2017-03-05

Handy dandy

The skipper has treated himself again.
Over the years, I've had impressively consistent results from Standard Horizon equipment. The original nav station VHFs on both Valiente and Alchemy were ancient, sticky-keyed and staticky relics and, although I replaced the radio on Valiente with a perfectly good, if non-DSC, ICOM M45 unit, (it's still working well and was sold with the boat), my subsequent desire to have a handheld VHF led me to purchase a Standard Horizon HX260S shortly thereafter. I hadn't heard of the brand when I started sailing back in the waning days of the 20th century, but I liked two aspects of 260S model that were relatively new at the time: it could be submerged thanks to a screw-down gasket and it could operate on either NiCad batteries or a supplemental AA "battery tray" one could keep in the "ditch bag". That tray corroded years ago, however, and the now over-15 year old 260S barely keeps a charge. But it still works, and, as most boaters on the Great Lakes will admit, they tend to use a handheld, five- or six-watt VHF in the cockpit to monitor Channel 16 to a far greater extent than they transmit on the more powerful (25 watt on the high setting) usually kept down below.
Simple but rugged and took a number of direct splashes with no ill effects.
So while there are cheaper VHF handies, and the brands Uniden and Cobra come to mind in this regard as decent "budget" options, I haven't found ones I like better in actual usage than Standard Horizon for thir combination of ruggedness, performance and feature-sets, which admittedly is a matter of taste given that almost all the major brands work well as VHF radios.
Apparently, this is still being sold. It's perhaps the funkiest of our VHF handies, given its size and random functions, like tinny classic rock reception.

I realized at some point that I wanted each member of the crew to have a VHF, and, at the time, that just meant Mrs. Alchemy, as the Cabin Boy was too young to muck about on air. Digital Selective Calling (DSC) was coming in, and although it would be some time before I got an MMSI assignment and started to explore this way of making a radio into a sort of phone as well as a greatly improved way to issue a distress call, I thought having a DSC handheld would eventually prove a plus. Standard Horizon obliged with a puny powerhouse, the multi-band HX 471S model. It seemed fearsomely advanced to us at the time, as it received AM and FM, Aircraft and WX bands, and transmitted on VHF, MURS and FRS (Family Radio Service). While I've never had a use for MURS, which seems dead in the water in Canada, I have used the short-range, low-powered FRS in conjunction with a pair of Cobra FRS units we got for anchoring practice. There's no radio etiquette demanded of this band that I know of, and unless you are a few docks over, it doesn't travel very far, unlike VHF, which I have managed to get six to eight NM of range with handheld to base unit. Anyway, the tiny 471S, while it didn't float, could take a splash well enough and was compact and light enough to be the handheld of choice for clipping to PFDs and taking into tenders. It's still working and will be gifted to Cabin Boy this season, who will need to take his Radio Operator's Certificate soon, as well as get his (mostly symbolic) PCOC.
Came with a strobe function, another nice add-on I hope never to use beyond "test mode".

Speaking of which, as he is now 15 and taller than his mother, the crew complement is now three, which argued a few years back for three VHF handhelds. Enter the SH HX 850, and back to floating handhelds, a real advantage if you've dropped the radio in the drink even once. Larger even than the old 260S model, if lighter, this featured a basic lat/lon GPS unit aboard, which I have used to report from the cockpit  to the Coast Guard various hazards to navigation, such as trees in the water or other debris. Even the 471S had a limited, charging cradle method of getting GPS info into its DSC distress calls, and I find this a useful and prudent adjunct to our handheld VHFs. This unit has seen the heaviest use aboard, as on Alchemy we are generally either on the aft "sailing" deck, or, when motoring or in pelting rain, we're in the pilothouse using our base unit VHF, of which I've given details before. Despite its girth, I have liked the big clear screen and (to me) simple menu options. I also like that Standard Horizon's "high power" setting is six, not five watts, which has never seemed to drain the battery faster, but has given slightly improved range to judge from anecdotal evidence and a bit of field testing.
And it's got the alkaline battery pack option.

With the "retirement" of our oldest handheld, however, we were down to two, although both were now DSC-capable. The Toronto Boat Show incented me to pick up Standard Horizon's latest whizbag model (ably reviewed here), the HX 870S, which was not only a great price, but which offered a $40 rebate. The screen is bigger and brighter, and the GPS is far faster to acquire a lock than the HX 850S, the strobe appears to be able to be seen from orbit, and so far, I think the sound quality is better. The GPS function is enhanced beyond lat/lon; you can use this unit as a compass and can easily note SOG and COG and distance to waypoint and can easily enter marks, such as harbour entrances..quite "handy", indeed. While this is admittedly little better than my still-functional Magellan 315 handheld GPS I got circa 2001, it's a great thing to have in a VHF, and the 66-channel GPS receiver is superior to the dedicated GPS. Even walking around my house, I can see I'm making one knot to windward. Another nice aspect is the waterproof USB port: you can download a program and input or extract data from the radio or use it as a GPS. Given we are going to be using PC-based navigation at least in part, this is another "belt-and-suspenders" navigation bonus. Interestingly, whereas the old 260S's optional alkaline battery pack took six AA batteries (adding greatly to its weight), this model takes just five AAAs...and still floats! The only downside is that on alkaline batteries, the transmit power is restricted to "low" (one watt). Otherwise, it's fully functional. Here's a better "unboxing review", courtesy of Waterfront Vacations, than I could have made:
So now all the crew have VHF-DSC handhelds. All are from Standard Horizon. I seem to have developed a preference.