CW, But For Real

A few years ago, I made an attempt to learn CW (Morse Code). I made an honest-to-god attempt. But I didn’t stick with it. Got frustrated with the apps I used, and never got fluent enough at copying symbols to rise above the frustration.

Well, I was chatting with my buddy Michael KG5RXG. I had expressed dissatisfaction with how I’m having a hard time just finding anyone with sideband voice. He showed me his log sheet; of the 40 on the screen, 30 were DX. Long. Distance. To other countries. Wow!

So what’s his secret? CW. He got into CW some years ago, and is now an advisor at CW Academy, a free training and outreach project run by the CW Operators Club. CW is a mode that really cuts through the noise; it’s a single tone you listen for. The signal is either there, or it’s not there. Even at the low QRP power levels he usually runs, he still makes them contacts. That’s his secret weapon.

And he twisted my arm.

CWA Beginner’s Class is an 8-week intense course, with homework and class meetings twice a week by video conference. The meetings are just to check our practice and offer advice (the best advice — advice an app cannot give). There are 6 students and 2 advisors in this session from around the Central and Eastern time zones, so it’s very direct, personal, and helpful.

They start us at 22wpm, which is pretty fast, but space the symbols out at 7wpm to start (this is the Farnsworth Spacing method). The purpose is to get us trained to the sound of the symbols, how they flow, the rhythm and pacing. This is Fast Code. People who start with Slow Code end up counting dits and dahs, and that limits how fast they can actually go; they eventually hit a wall. We have to go by sound and cadence to gain any sort of speed.

Also, they have us not writing anything down; it’s a spoken language, so we must “head copy”. As we hear each symbol, we mentally add it to the previous until we get the full word, then sock away the word as the next word begins. If we write anything down, we’re limited by the speed of our pencils. So throw out the pencils!

Also, no straight keys. We must use paddles (pictured above). The left paddle tells the radio to create dits, the right tells it to create dahs. Let the radio do the heavy work of timing and repetition. Our job is to learn how to hear and speak. If we want to use a straight key down the road after class, then fine. But for now, it’s paddles.

These skills are important for conversational Fast Code.

We’re halfway through the numbers and letters, and today’s lesson picked up the first punctuation: the question mark. We’re copying and sending whole words and phrases with the symbols we know so far, making our exchanges by audio within the video conference so we don’t pollute the airwaves with noise.

Personally, I’m already tripping up on a few letters like U and D, which are reversals of each other, and I’m sure W will give me fits once we unlock G. It’s those middling letters, the ones that don’t stand out like H or A do, that really trip me up. And don’t get me started with E, I, S, H, and 5 — those are nothing but increasing runs of dits.

Good times.

They say that by lesson 11 of 16 we’ll start learning the basics of a typical QSO (conversation) and how it flows, how each party begins, sends their message, then passes control back to the other party for response. It’s the nuts and bolts of the exchange, the mechanics of conversation, the part of CW whose purpose is to enable us to have fun on the air. That’s the real exercise. I can’t wait.

So yeah. So far, so good. I’m glad I signed up.

And thanks, Michael, for the kick in the pants.

Published by Shawn

He's just this guy, you know?