Adventures in CW: Learning Morse Code

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I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been learning Morse code and have been getting out on the air a bit on CW. It’s an interesting situation because I find myself almost obsessively thinking about getting the next CW QSO, while at the same time feeling hesitant, almost intimidated, about calling CQ. I find that it’s true what my elmer and CW class instructor, Rick, WØPC, said in class: Listening to recordings and computer training programs is good for learning Morse code, but it is not the same as a live on-the-air QSO. First, you have no control over the sending speed, spacing, or cadence of the operator at the other end. Second, you can’t pause or replay what the other person sends. Third, you have to be ready to hold up your end of the conversation.

I will admit that in typical Morse code QSOs I’ve had so far, I copy anywhere from 60 to 90%, depending on a range of factors like how focused I am, how tired I am, how much Morse code I’ve already done that day (some is helpful, a lot has diminishing returns), and how annoying my cat is feeling–he invariably tries to climb on my lap when I’m trying to copy, or walk across the desk when I’m trying to send. In any case, I thought I might share some things I’ve found helpful for getting on with CW.

Find a practice partner

The thing that has helped me the most is just forcing myself to get on the air. And the thing that helped me do that was finding someone who is willing to slow down to my speed. Rick, WØPC, has been very generous with his time, and we’ve arranged on-air practices a couple of times a week on average for the last few weeks. This has a two-pronged effect. It gives me an opportunity to practice, but it also gives me some confidence to go out and call CQ.

I’ve also joined a couple of Morse code clubs. The FISTS organization is devoted to helping hams learn, develop, and maintain Morse code skills. They also have operating events, some of which are geared to those just learning CW. Slow speed sprints, for example, and a monthly “Get Your Feet Wet” event. If you don’t already have a Morse code mentor, FISTS will even help you find someone to practice with.

Similarly, I recently found a group on Twitter called the Less Involved Data Society (Or LIDS, for short). LIDS is based in the UK, and from what I can tell, most of the members are Brits, but that hardly matters if the ionosphere is in reasonably good shape. But if you happen to be near Bristol on April 16, you might be interested in a CW Boot Camp LIDS is hosting.

Get On The Air!

Whatever you do to practice and prepare, eventually you have to take a leap into the great unknown. It is scary. It can be intimidating. It may be a complete disaster (like my first attempt was!) But you will survive. And each time you do it, it gets a little easier–at least it has so far for me.

I stay in the upper end of the 40 meter CW band segment. Between 7.110 and 7.125 you’ll find plenty of slow code operators. I’m usually in the neighborhood of 7.120. Every ham I’ve had a QSO with has been either a beginner like me, or an experienced hand who remembers what it was like when they were getting started and slows down for us newcomers. While the other new coders remind me that I’m not the only one, I really appreciate the experienced folks who make the effort to help me out. I have yet to meet anyone on the air who has been disparaging or critical.

One Small Request

I have found that my ability to copy hinges less on the character speed and more on the spacing between characters and words. I have my keyer speed set at 12 WPM, but even if the other person has theirs set higher, if they leave a little extra space between letters, I can usually keep up enough to at least get the gist of what they are sending. If you are working with a new coder and sense that they are not keeping up, maybe rather than reducing character speed, try leaving just a hair more space between letters. There are still a few characters that, when they hit my brain, it takes me a moment to process.

Anyway, I am having a blast learning this new old mode. I occasionally tune down the band to where the speed demons live and think, “Someday…someday…” Until then I keep working, and hope to meet some of you on the air. Let me know what practice and training tips have worked for you.





2 thoughts on “Adventures in CW: Learning Morse Code

  1. Great advice. I always exhort people to get on the air once they know the letters and numbers. It’s really the best practice, and isn’t making contacts the whole point of learning CW?

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