If you are installing a fixed-mount VHF marine radio, a high-quality antenna is a must. The antenna is the contact mechanism between your radio and the outside world. It radiates the transmitter power in order to send the signal in the right direction. A low-quality antenna will misdirect your signals and shorten your range. A high-quality antenna will boost your range and ensure that your signals travel to their intended destination. It will also stand up to all the jostling of your vessel on the high seas and stand the test of time.
You shouldn’t buy the first antenna you see. It is important to compare features and options such as length and gain. Below you can view a product table comparing top VHF marine radio antennas in different price ranges.
Before you pick the best antenna for your needs, you will need to have a strong understanding of important features. Following are some of the key considerations you should take into account before you make your purchase.
Gain (or dB Rating)
The gain or dB rating for an antenna is an indication of how it focuses energy. Those with a high rating are able to boost transmitting power through that focus. The downside of a high rating is the diminishing horizontal angle of the signal. Low dB antennas have a broader pattern of radiation, which reduces signal choppiness in rolling waves. This is why a lower dB (3 dB) is recommended for sailboats. Powerboats an use six- or nine-dB gain.
While a high antenna gain can be useful when it comes to boosting your signal, you need to pay attention to the cables you use as well. For every added foot of cable, signal strength is lost. With shorter cables (10-20 feet), that is not a problem, but 100 feet of coaxial cable on a small vessel like a sailboat can cause a loss of up to 80%! Keep cables short when you can; if you need a longer cable, then you should also use the largest diameter you can. Note that this does mean you’ll be adding more weight to your vessel, so you will need to figure out how you can compromise for the best of both worlds.
In terms of getting the best range, you are going to want to mount your antenna as high as possible. You are stuck with line of sight transmissions, so you can maximize both line of sight and transmission range by mounting high. You might not think this would be an issue at sea, but it is because of the curvature of the earth. You will max out around 35-50 miles. You are in great shape if you have a sailboat, since you can mount the antenna high up on the mast.
If you want to figure out your possible range, use this equation:
Square root of the antenna’s height above water (in feet) x 1.42 = Likely Range in Miles
You need to do this equation for both a transmitting and receiving vessel and add up the results in order to get the predicted range. So if you have a 10-mile range and another boat has a 5-mile range, together you can communicate across 15 miles.
Most antennas are constructed out metal elements inside a fiberglass tube. On the lower end of the price range, you will find a plastic ferrule and low-grade materials used throughout the unit. At the mid-range, you’ll get silver-plated brass elements and crimped connections. Pay top price and you will get a stainless steel ferrule and soldered internal components made out of silver-plated brass. The fiberglass will be of the highest quality and may even include an aircraft-grade finish.
Antennas break regularly. High quality units may last decades; those made out of substandard materials may last only a couple of years.
Also note that higher-quality models may have UV blockers worked into the paint. When cleaning your boat, watch out for harsh chemicals that can strip your finish. Stick with mild soap and water. Wax is okay.
Mounting + Mounting Location
There are several common choices for mounting your antenna. You can ratchet it onto the rail; you can affix it to a vertical or horizontal surface with a flange mount; or you can ratchet it onto a sloping surface. You also have the option of mounting on your mast if you have a sailboat (which you should definitely do).
Always mount your antenna as high as possible, and keep it away from other antennas and anything large that’s made of metal. Also make sure it is a minimum of three feet from your marine VHF radio.
The Tram 1610-HC: Surprisingly solid fiberglass antenna
The 1610-HC is not the most high end antenna in the world, but it definitely gets the job done. It’s popular, inexpensive and surprisingly tough.
- Easy installation. You don’t need any additional parts to hook up this antenna.
- Fiberglass construction. Fiberglass bends but doesn’t break when strong wind pushes it around.
- Rugged materials. The Tram 1610-HC won’t give out on you after a storm rolls in because its hardware is made out of stainless steel.
- Extra long coaxial cable. The included 17 foot coaxial cable is lengthy enough to get the job done.
- Uncomplicated stowage. The Tram 1610-HC’s rachet style mount makes it easy to tuck this antenna away when you’re not using it.
- Doesn’t stick out. This antenna’s simple design doesn’t attract attention or make your boat look ugly.
- Reasonable price. With the Tram 1610-HC, you get a high quality antenna for the fraction of the cost of a name brand one.
- If you don’t like to buy products that were manufactured abroad, you may want to go with another antenna. The Tram 1610-HC was built and assembled in China.
- Even though the hardware is stainless steel, the base itself is made out of plastic. The plastic is quite durable, but it could’ve been even more rugged if Tram opted for metal instead.
Shakespeare 5101 Centennial: Long and powerful
Looking for extreme range and maximum power? If so, the 8 foot Shakespeare 5101 Centennial is worth a hard look.
- One of the most powerful marine antennas out there. This antenna’s copper filled interior cavity gives it more range than most other antennas on the market today.
- Extra durable. The Shakespeare 5101 Centennial is even stronger than the Shakespeare 5101 standard.
- Comes with a connection cable. With the Shakespeare 5101 Centennial, you get a 15 foot RG-58 cable and a PL-259 connector.
- Attractive looks. This antenna features a smooth glaze and a rugged yet stylish copper plated exterior surface.
- Works at high speeds. Even at 35 knots, the 5101 Centennial performs quite well.
- Excellent customer service. The folks at Shakespeare specialize in marine antennas, so they really know what they’re talking about.
- 25 mile range. It’s sometimes possible to get even better results if the conditions are ideal.
- There is no mounting kit included in the box. You’ll have to buy your own if you want to attach this antenna to your boat.
- The installation instructions are unclear and hard to understand. Luckily for anyone in need of help, the Shakespeare support team is quite good.
Shakespeare 5104 Centennial: Short but effective
The Shakespeare 5104 Centennial is half as tall as the 5101. But it’s still packs quite a lot of power into its 4-foot-tall frame.
- Great for tall boats. If you’re already cutting it close when you go underneath bridges, you’ll need a small antenna like the Shakespeare 5104.
- Picks up the transmissions you need to hear. High performance antennas often pick up transmissions from far-off boats, but if all you want is crystal clear line-of-sight communication the 5104 Centennial is all you need.
- Elegant design. The 5104 Centennial antenna won’t get in the way or draw attention to itself.
- The Shakespeare brand name. Shakespeare is known for creating high quality antennas and providing excellent customer support.
- Small, yet powerful. It’s only 4 feet tall, yet the Shakespeare 5104 performs like a much larger antenna when it comes to line-of-sight communication.
- Hard to break. This antenna resists winds that would topple or snap most other antennas.
- Better than the 5104 standard. The 5104 Centennial features a copper plated exterior that helps it resist dings and nicks.
- It doesn’t come with a mounting kit. You’ll need to buy your own to get started with the 5104 Centennial.
- The 5104 Centennial is pricier than other antennas its size, but the extra cost is worth the additional investment.