Tuesday, August 7, 2018

To CW or not to CW

A long time ago, when I decided to get my ham radio license, it was still mandatory to acquire CW skills before you could get an HF license. At the time I did not picture myself learning CW off of cassette tapes. In my early twenties I had much better things to do. So I went for a novice license that allowed me access to a part of the 2m band in FM with a whooping 10 watts. This was fun for a couple of months and then the radio went in a box in a closet for a long time.

HF without CW

In 2010 I returned to the hobby when I found out I could go on HF with my old license and that for a full license CW was no longer mandatory. I upgraded to full half a year later.

So all these years CW was never more than an obstacle to me. I have made a few CW contacts using my computer but then CW becomes just another digital mode. A bit boring.

As I am quite capable of using my voice - and have been for many years and hopefully for many years to come - I perceived this whole CW-thing as a needlessly difficult and indirect way of communication.

Also I found that CW carries with it a certain amount of snobbery (only by some, but still noticeable): you have the nobles that use CW to communicate and the plebs that uses phone. Hardly inviting.

The need to change

Things changed this year. We have a small radio group (M, YY and myself) that amongst other things participates in the PACC contest. We have done so for the last 5 years, winning the last 3. CW is crucial in this contest and only one of us - M - masters CW. 
This year M could only join us a couple of hours into the contest. That would make it impossible to achieve a competing score. Luckily we found a local OM that was able to jump in on last notice but we clearly saw our weakness as a team. Until now it had only been a practical nuisance with M taking a 24h shift with only short periods to doze off, while YY and myself could work in several shifts.

This is when YY and myself decided we had to learn CW. At least to the level that we could take CW shifts during the slow early morning hours.

Learning curve

Reading up on all the tips regarding learning CW I started using the Koch method via a website, but found it waaayyy too boring. There was no way that I could slow myself down to that level with normal life happening. 
YY in the meantime informed me he was using morserunner and that it was nice to learn to copy calls better and quicker. Rather frustrating as I had just made it to Koch lesson 2 and still confused the K and R.

Some time passed until I came across a nice Android app called "Mors.". It shows you an English word and then gives you a certain time to send all the letters by tapping the screen (dah - dit). The time you get to complete a word decreases, making it harder and harder. It is up to you to beat your high score. This gamification works for me. I quickly learned all the letters.

However... this way you learn the letters as dashes and dots and in a rather slow pace. It might give you some foundation but I was still unable to copy anything sent at a regular speed. 

So back to boring Koch.. and big time procrastination.

Four months had passed with little progress apart from the ability to translate letters in morse code v.v. on paper. Then came the summer holiday. The summer was extraordinarily hot and HF conditions were poor, so during my stay in OZ I decided to sacrifice some of my /P radio plans to just relax in the shadow and force myself to complete at least a number of Koch levels. M and YY advised me to start with a larger number of letters in stead of learning them two at the time. It helped making the learning less boring. Also the fact that there was nothing else going on then the kids enjoying the sea, helped to keep me focused.

I used (and still use) two Android apps to help me learn - see below for links: CW Trainer (using the Koch method) to send a random set of letters at a 24wpm with Farnsworth timing (slowing down the sequence but not the letter itself) and Morse Camp to send English words of a given length.

Some progress
By the end of the holiday I was able to copy all letters at 24wpm, making only a few mistakes along the way. Copying words is still a challenge as I really need the Farnsworth delay to mentally process what I heard.

So now the challenge is to keep on repeating what I learned, add numbers as new signs still to learn and start bringing down the Farnsworth delay (speeding up the sequence).

All that.. while normal life has returned. 

So far I have not touched any of the morse code apps yet but given the investment I have made so far, I am confident that by the time the PACC contest starts next year, I will be able to take my CW shifts.

And perhaps I will be able to make real life CW QSOs before that.

Links to the apps I use (on Android):
Mors. allows you to practice sending morse code. The nice thing is that it works as a game where you have to improve on your last high score. The down side is that it does not actually learn you to copy (rx) CW. 
CW Trainer is a nice trainer that allows you to use various training modes, including Koch. I liked the interface and versatility of the app so I decided to buy this one.
Morse Camp is a website and Android app (for which I cannot find the link anymore) that sends English words of a predefined length.