Learning The Code
Learning CW is, like most most skill acquisition processes, a journey. It reminds me a great deal of learning a musical instrument. There are times when it’s nothing but a grind to master a piece of it in order to move to the next level. And then there are moments when something becomes automatic and it’s a joy to get into the flow of it.
I haven’t had a whole lot of that last part, but there’s been enough that I’m not discouraged.
In reading about learning CW, there are all kinds of references to training methods used for the armed forces in World War II. It’s highly emphasized, I believe, due to the demographic of those who wrote the books. They were either WWII combat veterans or their children. In almost every article or book there is at least some nod to “Well, my dad learned the code in 4 weeks so he could be under fire and fight!” And yeah, being in a war is a great motivation to perfect a skill. But sitting here in 2023, with about 25 minutes a day of time that can be devoted to learning CW, those stories don’t do much in terms of motivation. If anything, they come off as dismissive of the difficulty of learning in the current moment.
Setting a goal of studying CW for 100 days was a brilliant idea. It was adopted across the Ham Radio Fediverse by quite a few Operators who are motivated and have a strong interest in becoming functional with CW. It’s been wonderful to watch and be to be involved in it. As I cruised across the 100 day mark, I looked back to see what I’d actually accomplished.
I completed the Koch method at 12 wpm and started working my way up to 15 wpm. As it turns out, that’s not much of a stretch! I also made my first QSOs using CW. They were painful and required a great deal of patience on the part of the other operators, but they were successful! Getting CW QSOs in my POTA activations is a real rush for me.
The most important thing that I did was establish a practice. Every day, I do a little practice with the computer. I listen to QSOs. I have practice programs and files that I work with. Each day is a little different, but each day has its time dedicated to learning to copy. And that’s the most important thing to take away from the #CW100Days effort: it is about studying CW; not mastering CW. 100 days is a start. It’s a way to establish a practice. It’s not going to have anyone contesting at 30 wpm. At least it didn’t get me there. And I didn’t expect that it would.
With the first 100 days ending, I’m in a place to set some new objectives. Things that I thing are achievable.
I used LCWO.net for most of my daily practice. It’s an amazing site and I can’t say enough good things about it. The MorseMachine coupled with callsign practice and code groups really helped me work on my instant character recognition. It’s highly configurable and free to use. They don’t advertise or ask for financial support, so I will simply say that anyone studying CW should check it out.
Morse-It on iOS is also really, really useful to me. I use it as a counterpoint to LCWO in copy practice and it is my go-to for sending practice. Working on copying without practicing sending feels like a huge mistake to me. Making CW a physical action ingrains the patterns in much the same way one does when learning a musical instrument. It’s two parts of the same whole. Morse-It makes that kind of practice easy because it’s on my phone and tablet so I can practice on the couch or anywhere I have my key and the magic USB dongle that I use to get it into the iOS device.
The Long Island CW Club is an asset. I joined the club about halfway through the challenge. I think that if I were to start over completely, I might start with them. They have amazing resources for going from a raw beginner to a functional operator (at reasonable speed). I view it as the Couch To 5k of CW study. I’m going to take advantage of the headcopy classes they offer and the tools they have at the intermediate level given that the basic courses are things that I’ve mastered at this point. I also want to leverage their on the air activities.
The ARRL practice files are very helpful. They have the code practice runs broadcast by W1AW in mp3 and text file formats. Those files teach, more than anything else, how fast the code flows by when it’s not broken up by characters that are used infrequently in conversation (X,Q,Z,V,Y) but all over the place in callsigns. Very. Useful.
GETTING ON THE AIR!!! Holy smokes. This was the biggest revelation of the first 100 days. I don’t know why I didn’t expect it to be the key, but it absolutely is. All of the practice in the world doesn’t give the motivation that having another operator on the air does. Everyone is terrified to get out and call CQ that first time. We’re all afraid of looking like fools or not being good enough or ruining the experience for the other operator. These fears aren’t rational. Radio is an activity that only works when there are other people out there to work. A contact can’t be one-sided. Any Operator calling CQ at 12 wpm is sending a signal that is easily received by an experienced CW Operator. And the kinds of Operators who come back are, in my experience, kind and very patient. I currently have 9 CW QSOs in my log. Not a huge sample size there, but each one of them was a great experience. Every Operator repeated callsigns and states for me again and again. Sending
? got very slow, widely-spaced responses. Each QSL card I sent got back at least an email telling me to keep it up! It’s powerful motivation and critical practice. I’m sure that one could practice until one was able to send and receive at 25 wpm before their fist contact. But…why? Get on the air and have fun!
Goals and Objectives: What’s Next?
More CW contacts during POTA activations.
My original goal was to learn CW for POTA. Why? Because my dumb equasion of radio operation states:
POTA -> QRP -> CW
I’ve heard a lot of criticism that I should be shooting to be able to hold a rag chew at 25 wpm, but that’s not how I operate. I like being outside. I find it relaxing to get on the air and do that POTA thing, so I’m going to keep doing it. And the big goal is to have 50% or more of my contacts for a POTA activation on CW by the time I hit 2024. That seems reasonable.
It is so much fun to see how the mind functions when learning a skill. Taking character recognition to the next level of concatenation (letters to words) is really, really difficult. The current buffer in my head is about three characters before I need to start writing things down. Sometimes I can get a whole callsign, but not often. I’m going to lean hard on the resources and classes at LICW to advance my skills in this area. And lots more text file practice.
This is coupled with head copying. The goal is to get closer and closer to 20 wpm. Right now, settling in at 15 wpm for POTA activations feels about right. I don’t mind sitting at that speed for a while given that I’m doing this without the assistance of any kind of technology. If I were using an application or something? I don’t know. That’s not my approach because I have different goals in mind. I want fewer computers applications at my station, not more. The push for 20 will take me through the next couple of 100 Days I’m sure.
So Far, So Good
I’m going to keep using the #CW100Days tag on Mastodon. But the 100 days in question is the next set. The 100 Days never really ends. Not until we decide it does. I hope that other Operators pick it up and use it as a way to improve their skills and their practice. It was a wonderful idea and maybe one of the coolest things to come out of the ham radio Fediverse.