By Frank Lanier
Chesapeake Magazine (2004)
Offshore Magazine (2004)

           You’ve probably seen them – those Buck Rodgers looking handhelds folks are using to keep in touch with friends and family members from the ski slopes to the mall, and you’ve also probably said to yourself “Hmmm…those would be kinda handy to have on the boat.”    Well, they are handy to have onboard and while they may conjure nostalgic memories of those brickbat walki-talkies you and Stinky Wilson used as a kid, these are a lot better.

            The units themselves are collectively know as FRS radios, short for Family Radio Service, which as the name implies is one of the Citizens Band Radio Services established to allow folks to communicate with family and friends on group outings – they’re also the only radios boaters can legally use to communicate between their vessel and crewmembers ashore (use of VHF is illegal in this respect).

            FRS is the result of over 25 years of efforts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish an unlicensed, personal radio service.  After heavy opposition from current spectrum users (and equally enthusiastic support from radio manufacturers) FRS was finally approved by the FCC on May 15, 1996.

            FRS offers 14 channels of unlicensed communications, meaning no licenses or permits are required for use.  The radios have a max output of 1/2 watt (500 milliwatt) effective radiated power and integral (non-detachable) antennas providing up to two unobstructed miles of communications, although one mile or less is more realistic for good clear comms in most cases (you’ll find the range is pretty much the same for most comparable units).  As to cost, I’ve seen lower end units as cheap as $15 a pair, with more advance units in the $150 range or higher.

            FCC provisions allow you to operate anywhere they regulate radio communications as long as you’re using an unmodified FCC certified unit (i.e. one with a manufacturer’s identifying label on it), you’re not a foreign government representative, and if the FCC hasn’t yanked your authority to use them – they can and have done so in the past to individuals abusing the system.  These provisions grant authority for unlicensed use of FRS radios anywhere in the world, except areas regulated by other U.S. agencies or within the territorial limits of any foreign government.

Da rules

            Unlicensed use, however, does not mean unregulated use and there are can’s and cant’s users must be aware of.  First off, you can’t modify FRS radios, meaning they can’t be “souped-up” by adding external antennas or power amplifiers – in short, anything that isn’t certified as part of the unit by the FCC.

            Use is also limited to two-way communications, meaning you can’t use them to broadcast say, music, or do other types of one-way communications, except brief test messages, traveler’s assistance, or “emergency messages” which the FCC defines as “concerning the immediate protection of property or the safety of someone’s life.” Additional restrictions (not surprisingly) include no swearing or use of the system for any illegal purposes.

On the positive side, you can use your FRS unit for business-related communications and there is no age or citizenship requirement.


            While most boaters won’t need many of the bells and whistles found on higher end models, consider the following while shopping.

            Many of the cheapest units only broadcast to channel 1 (462.5625 mhz), making it the most crowed channel of the system.  If you’re using your radio sporadically or in more remote areas where other radios are unlikely to be present, this should be fine.  Otherwise, you’ll probably be better off spending a few more bucks for units that have all fourteen channels and afford a little more privacy.  (“Upgrading” to a model with all of the channels is pretty reasonable.  I recently found a pair of Cobra PR145-2 microTALK radios on line offering all fourteen channels, call alert, low battery indicator, auto squelch and a belt clip for $21.75).

            Speaking of privacy, some manufacturers advertise certain models as having a “privacy” or “scrambling” code, giving the impression they’re capable of encoded operation.  In reality, this feature still allows anyone to listen in on your conversations – you just won’t be able to hear them if they try transmitting to you (unless they have the same codes set).

Worried about the kids changing the channel (by accident or design) during that first solo dingy trip ashore?  You may want to consider a radio such as the FRS-114 by Maxon ($60) a mid-level unit that requires the user to set jumper switches inside the battery compartment to change channels.  While it may be a pain of sorts for adults, having to open the unit to change channels would be an advantage in keeping the lines of communication open between kids and the mother ship.

            Nighttime use may be another consideration.  Most mid to upper level radios have backlit screens, but unlit radio buttons require use of a flashlight or other light source.  The tiny (6 inches with antenna) Cherokee FR-460 model from Wireless Marketing ($179.00) is a high end unit that among a wealth of other features offers illuminated buttons, making it particularly useful for nighttime operations, such as that dingy ride back to the boat after Karaoke hour at the marina bar.

            Voice-activated microphone/headset combinations or push-to-talk ear bud/microphone setups are also available.  They’re used by many boaters for communications between helm and crewmembers handling lines during docking or anchoring maneuvers, however be advised that while many work OK in calm, windless areas, in some cases ambient noise continually sets them off.  Efforts to offset this by reducing sensitivity can cause the units to cut out while you’re speaking.

A final caveat involves mixing and matching radios from different manufacturers.  Some features (such as the privacy modes mentioned above) only function with other radios from the same manufacture or even the same model.  This goes for accessories too – they’re not standardized and must be from the manufacturer of your particular radio to work properly in most cases.