By Norm Campbell-AB6ET
Turn on your radio. Get on the air. Have fun. It’s that simple.
CW is no longer required for licensing, it’s not used for commercial messages, and there are many other forms of communication that are more reliable, faster, and easier. We are free to do CW just for the historical value of it and for the fun of it.
CW is a skill, a code, a secret language that makes us real radio operators. It takes us back to the earliest days of the telegraph and the beginnings of radio. CW was used for real until about 20 years ago. It’s a talent that anyone can learn that can lead to an entirely new dimension of ham radio.
These opinions are my own. There is room for discussion. Try what you want or don’t. This is what I’ve found.
We are hams, not commercial operators. Hams are friendly, considerate, and willing to work with one another including beginners or less experienced CW enthusiasts. Willingness to get on the air and make contacts, correct bad habits, and learn standard techniques is all that is required.
There are many training procedures available to us. Stop talking about it, pick one, do as the lessons say until you have it. Then get on the air.
Don’t worry about esoteric names for various operating styles or techniques. There is no value talking about any or all the great number of things that only serves to interfere with what we need to know. Yes, it’s OK to talk about them over coffee, but get on with it. They make no real difference in the end. Getting on the air makes a difference. There are just a few things we really need to know.
We need to know 26 letters, 10 numbers, a few punctuations, and a few pro-signs. The total amount you must know is about 45-50 characters. Don’t worry about it. Learn the letters, numbers, common punctuation, and common pro-signs and you will be fine.
Abbreviations are common sense that speeds up communication. You will remember them by using them, not by memorizing them.
Next to understand is rhythm and timing. There is a flow, a sound, a musical quality that makes good CW a joy to hear. Without rhythm and timing it’s like hearing a thick accent: hard to listen to and hard to understand.
Rhythm is the sound of putting dits and dahs together to make letters and words. The letter “C” is not “two Ns.” Banana Boat Swing or Lake Erie Swing is contrived and makes for more difficult copy on the receiving end no matter how much character someone thinks it has. Properly sent or received letters and words flow smoothly.
Timing is the interval between letters and words. There are charts telling us the correct spacing between letters and words, but it can be easily distinguished as right from wrong just by listening. The word “THE” is not “6E.” We want distinct letters and words. All the letters and words jammed together without a break is like listening to the guy on TV who can say an entire insurance commercial disclaimer without taking a breath.
Send letters at a speed fast enough to make them distinct sounds. What that speed is I don’t know, but it’s too slow if you can hear individual dits and dahs. It’s too fast if the sound is a blur. Sending clear letters and words will make for good copy. The overall code speed is determined by lengthening or shortening the time between letters and words.
Don’t worry about speed. Speed will come with practice. Good CW at any speed, slow or fast, is better than any speed of poor CW. Our goal is good conversational CW. What speed is that? Who knows? It’s whatever the two operators decide to use that they can both copy and send to make meaningful communication.
Send at the speed you want to receive. Sending faster than you can receive will cause lots of misses and delays when the other operator returns at the same speed.
A good CW operator can send or receive at various speeds depending on the conditions. Perfect CW, as sent by W1AW or in the practice archives, is easy to copy at any speed. On the air in real life it’s not so easy. Add QSB, QRM, QRN, normal mistakes, and things change. We have to be ready to adjust as conditions vary. Asking for QRS is legitimate whenever needed.
I recommend writing down what is sent. Either write it down completely or make notes. You can decipher it later rather than trying to head copy on the air. Head copy is easy with normal conversation and perfect CW. As soon as the problems mentioned above come into play then trying to pay attention to what is said or answer a question as well work through mistakes (everyone makes mistakes) and varying QSB, QRM, and QRN conditions can make it twice as hard.
Don’t worry about missing a couple of letters or even words. If you write it down as you copy you can fill in later by intuition what you missed. Even if you miss it all together, just ask for a repeat. It’s not like the end of the world depends on it. We’re just hams going back and forth with one another.
There are techniques for writing faster, actually, printing faster. Letters written in just a few strokes without serifs are quicker than school book printing. There are diagrams detailing how to print quick letters. If you can actually write cursive or type you might be able to write faster. Each of these is a specific learning task separate from learning CW, just as using a keyer or bug is a separate learning task.
Experience is the great cure for not understanding certain procedures. Regular practice is the key to success. The more often you get on the air the more proficient you will become. Just do it. And of course, have fun!