Paul Butzi |||

Learning CW - Some Observations

I’ve been working on learning CW/Morse Code for some time, now - essentially for as long as I’ve had an amateur radio license. That works out to, oh, 8 years. Across much of that period, the effort has been non-existent. For some of that period the effort level has been fairly high.

Things have gone in several stages:

  1. Unsuccessful attempts to learn to recognize the letters using various recordings (Skilman is one I tried without much succcess)
  2. More or less successfully learning to recognize letters using morse machine’ style training tools, which play a letter and wait for you to type what letter you heard, with various mechanisms to introduce letters in stages. The problem I encountered was that I’d trained myself to hear, for example, an a” and then type the letter a” on a keyboard, and so to copy a continuous stream of CW I’d have to type it and read it when done typing. Head copy was not possible.
  3. Having learned to recognize letters/numbers, various semi-successful attempts to transition away from typing and into head copy.
  4. retraining myself to recognize characters in real time and not write them down or type them but instead to capture the words of a QSO.

This last stage has been perhaps the most difficult. I think it took me just a few weeks to learn to recognize individual characters for the entire alphabet, the numerals, and common punctuation.

The goal has always been to be able to use CW to get on the air. Several things have until recently kept me from attempting that:

  1. I can’t head copy continuous text without missing quite a lot, even at relatively modest speeds (e.g. 10wpm)
  2. I’m not very good at sending, not because I can’t remember the dits and dahs to send but because I just lack dexterity with the key. As a fellow ham put it, I may be slow but I make up for it by making a lot of mistakes.
  3. the CW equivalent of mic fright - the fear that I’ll screw up and look like a fool.
  4. the fear that the ham on the other end will get impatient and get angry or unhappy. I don’t want to make people unhappy.

But I have started chasing Parks on the Air contacts using CW with some modest success recently. In many ways, this is almost ideal for getting over the hurdle of getting on the air with CW. All you really need is:

  • the ability to recognize your callsign.
  • The ability to semi-recognize a few common CW words: GM, GA, GE (good morning, afternoon, evening), TU (thank you), a signal report (three digits, generally starting with 5’ and ending with 9’ or n’), 73”, BK, and most importantly ?”.
  • the ability to send your callsign, perhaps using a keyer memory on your radio.
  • the ability to send a signal report, perhaps using a keyer memory on your radio.
  • the ability to send your state abbreviation, followed by BK

That looks like a lot of complicated stuff but it boils down to not very much: you want to be able to send your callsign, and something of the form BK GM UR 5NN 5NN WA WA BK, the ability to send BK TU 73 (dit dit)”. Thomas Witherspoon has done an excellent video on POTA exchanges, which makes all this clear.

My main point here is that you can program 3 keyer memories in your radio:

  1. your callsign
  3. TU 73 E E”

It works like this: you listen to the activator. When you hear her call CQ POTA you hit the button to send your callsign.

The activator will respond with a callsign, and probably a signal report, ending with BK. You don’t need to copy anything, just recognize the overall pattern: your callsign, some stuff, a signal report, some stuff, and BK.

The callsign might be yours, it might be someone else’s. You don’t need to copy the callsign, either it’s not yours, or it’s yours. If it’s not yours, you just wait and try again when you hear the station send CQ again.

When you hear your callsign and the rest of that stuff, you hit the button for GM UR… and send your signal report. If you’re concerned about sending 5NN reports when the station is really 55N, just ignore all the stations that aren’t 5NN at first - problem solved. Working strong signals is easier to start anyway.

Now the activating station will respond, most likely with something rather like TU WA 73 (dit dit).

Your final act is to hit the button to send TU 73 (dit dit)”

This is a successful POTA QSO! You have not keyed a single character, it was all using keyer memories programmed in advance. You did not need to capture any of the information sent by the activator. You only need to recognize the overall pattern of the QSO, which you can learn just by going on youtube and watching any of Thomas Witherspoon’s excellent activation videos and listening to the pattern repeated over and over.

Possible objections to this technique are that you don’t learn keying, you are unprepared for various speed bumps you’ll hit, and you aren’t understanding everything that’s sent to you.

And this is where we confront a fundamental misconception about CW as practiced on the air: the neophyte CW practitioner thinks everyone else sends flawlessly and copies with zero errors. That’s not the way it works. It’s not you, orating at the rostrum of an auditorium, with a rapt audience listening to you speak in the quiet room. It’s more like you, trying to communicate some small bit of information to a friend, in a very noisy bar. It’s more like you sending an SMS message to a family member, who will be tolerant of your misspellings and typos.

If you’re not convinced, take a minute, dial your radio around to the frequencies you find on the POTA spots page, and listen to some POTA QSOs on the air. They are absolutely rife with keying screwups, people getting confused and sending the wrong thing, and repeated ?” when someone didn’t catch something.

As for the speed bumps, if you get lost, you can just stop sending. The ham on the other end will try again a few times, then realize you are gone, and move on to the next QSO. They won’t know (and will not care) what happened. Maybe you chickened out, yes, but maybe you just can no longer hear them, or maybe you had to leave because of some urgent issue. This happens ALL THE TIME. It’s not a big deal.

I did this, and what I’ve discovered is that I’m learning to copy stuff in my head, and I am starting to use the key to send. I’m learning how to be a more active and thinking participant.

Example: I was trying to contact an activator sending slowly, calling CQ POTA. I send my callsign (W7PFB), and got back ?” So I sent W7PFB again, and got back W?” Ah, I thought, he’s probably like me, and can’t copy fast, this is easy to fix. Or maybe he just can hear me very clearly, again I’d use the same fix. And I sent W, pause, 7, pause, P, pause, F, pause, B. Twice. And got back W7PFB?” Bingo! That’s me! And off we went.

The thing to remember is that this is not brain surgery, and it’s a game, not life and death. If it takes you three tries to send 73” because you keep getting extra dits in there, no one will do anything except smile and accept the sentiment. If you screw up and send GO instead of GM you don’t end up with the CW police banging on your door, because absolutely no one cares except you.

All of which is pretty obvious. What is not obvious is this: you will never get good enough to get on the air with CW by listening to practice recordings, or using practice tools. The practice tools have their place, but the absolute best practice tool is your radio, which will confront you with hams with various fists, noise, QSB, people tuning up while zero beat against the activator, QRM, QRN, and signals that range from S9+30 all the way down to so low you need ESP to hear them. All those things are part of the game. Sometimes you will win.
Sometimes you will lose, but that’s ok.

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