The Need for Speed — My CW Journey

CW is a fantastic mode. If haven’t considered CW operating, or are presently working on your skills, check out the CWOps website: It’s an incredible group dedicated to the art of CW. In fact, their CW Academy is second to none and has helped numerous operators hone their skills whether ragchewing, DXing, or contesting. Sadly, CW Ops hadn’t yet formed at the time I decided to work on my skills. Nevertheless, below is my journey, which is still ongoing in fact, in the need for speed.

“Speed” might be a bit misleading when describing my CW skills from the early contest days. A better description might be nada, zilch, zero. Yes, I was SSB only and lingered under the flawed misconception that to become good at CW, one had to learn it very early in life, or possess some kind of mutant, genetic super power. Besides, wasn’t it a backwater, old-fashioned mode of operating best left to museums and old western movies? I had much to learn, and my journey was about to begin.

After building my contest station in 2002 on Camano Island, Washington, I enjoyed some success in the top major SSB contests. I was having a blast competing against the world’s best operators, while working the world at the same time. How could ham radio get any better?

It wasn’t until a friend of mine, Ron, KH6DV, pointed out that I was missing half the fun by avoiding CW contests. He encouraged me to work on my CW skills and start competing. Since he was one of my mentors, I took his advice to heart and starting looking at some of the CW scores in major contests. Not only were the Qs, mults, and overall scores higher, these operators were running at rates that rivaled or exceeded SSB. I was hooked.

Having passed a 13 WPM test for my General Class license in 1984, whatever dubious skills I had acquired back then were long gone. Starting from zero and relearning the code was the only option. Once again, my mentor Ron stepped in and recommended a great software program by VE3NEA called Morse Runner. If you’ve never used it before, you’re in for a treat. It does a terrific job simulating the contest environment. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Firs, I had to reacquaint myself with the code.

Starting from scratch meant learning the basics. I found an easy-to-use online CW generator that could either send random or typed characters. I set it to 5 WPM and worked the alphabet from to A to Z, and numbers from 0 to 9. I practiced every day without fail for 30 to 40 minutes. After about 5 or 6 weeks, I was able to recognize numbers and letters without looking at a cheat sheet. To test myself, I had my wife send random characters into the code generator and enthusiastically shouted the correct answer. I’ll bet she never saw that coming in the “For better or worse” vows.

Now that I had the basics down, enter Morse Runner. I set my speed to 5 WPM in WPX mode, which simulates the WPX contest of call signs and serial numbers. I left out the QRM, QRN, Flutter and Lid settings to get good at copying whatever the program could throw at me. Once again, I practiced every day for 30 to 40 minutes, using my copying accuracy and rate to determine when it was time to increase speed. As that improved, I gradually introduced the software’s “Pandora’s Box” of operating distractions of the sort one would certainly encounter in a real contest.

My goal was to copy 20 WPM before attempting a serious contest effort, and after about 6 months of daily practice, I reached that goal and was ready to put my new skills to work. My friend and mentor Danny, K7SS — a great CW op — helped me with the finer points of operating, including filter and rig settings, and some of the abbreviations one might encounter. Filter settings are hugely important for CW, and that knowledge helped tremendously.

As a decent SSB contester, I had to abandon my ego at the shack door when operating CW. No, that’s not quite right, let me re-word that. I had to bury my ego in the backyard and leave it there, where it remains in an unmarked grave. Thankfully, Humble Pie is calorie free, because I ate mass quantities. Recognizing this as part of the process of improving, I didn’t allow my ego to hold me back or make me quit.

“If I’m slow, I’m slow! I’ll be faster next time,” were some of the affirmations running through my mind.

Although Morse Runner did an excellent job preparing me for the actual contest world, there’s nothing like a real contest to build one’s skills. Starting out in smaller QSO parties and 160 meter contests (where speeds are generally slower) served as fertile ground to gradually build my skills and confidence. That last part is worthy of repeating, because building confidence and skills were key in reaching my CW goals. As time went on, that led to single-band entries in larger contests, and eventually all-band contests.

Once I began entering major contests I felt like I was now in the game. Bigger contests meant bigger pileups, bigger scores, and bigger demands on the operator. If a pileup ensued, or someone fired back at 40 WPM, my stress level quickly spiked as I tried to efficiently handle it. Managing a CW pileup required more concentration to pull out call signs, especially when the signals were pretty close in strength. In the end, I survived and became a little more battle tested each time.

The more contests you enter, the easier it becomes. Even though I knew that to be true, there were times when I felt frustrated plodding along in the slow lane when I knew the station and operator were capable of so much more.

After one particular contest, I documented my frustration on 3830. KI7Y and W7WA saw those comments and e-mailed encouraging words, such as, “Keep at it! It will get better!” or, “Hang in there and keep operating the contests. Your skills will improve with each one.” When great veteran contesters take time to send share their hard-earned wisdom, you listen. I listened, and their words carried me through those frustrating times.

The more CW contests I entered, the more I began to really appreciate, admire, and respect the skills of those great operators you see in the To 10 every year. Whether they operate SSB or CW, their scores were always great. Those operators killed it in both modes and kept proving why they are the world’s best.

With this new insight, my goal of entering CW contests and just surviving was over. Making the Top 10 and emulating those top operators was the new goal. It was a powerful motivator, and one that still drives me today.

I still consider my CW skills as a work in progress, but they have improved with each contest to the point that I can hang with the cool kids in the fast lane. It also earned me a trip to WRTC 2014 in Boston to compete with my team mate, KL2A on the world stage with the cream of the crop — a great honor and privilege I’ll never forget.

Operating all kinds of contests and getting your feet wet is the best way to keep improving. Think about all of the thousands of call signs you’ll work in all types of conditions. Whether you realize it or not, you’re being battle tested. That translates to better skills as a contester, CW operator, and best of all, as a listener, which means bigger and better scores in both modes!

If everything I’ve mentioned so far still has you saying, “Well, yeah, but…” let me add a little more fuel to the fire. One of the best features of CW is a narrow bandwidth and superior weak-signal reception. For you veterans, this is old news, but if you’re reading this and are new to CW or CW contesting, you’re going to love it.

Jam packed 20m band with splatter galore!

Anyone that has operated a SSB contest won’t soon forget all of the splatter and QRM that is unavoidable. At times, it seems like a rite of passage to survive it. That disappears on CW. Yes, there are the occasional key clicks. Yes, sometimes guys want to steal your frequency. Yes, QRN can keep you asking for repeats. But it’s nothing like SSB. Weak signals that are inaudible on SSB easily can be copied on CW.

What about heavy or hard to decipher accents in DX contests? Gone. No accents on CW. That said, flutter can make it difficult when every dot or dash matters. The same applies when trying to copy through heavy QRN, but that is also the case on SSB.

CW signals during a contest – much better!

Due to a much wider bandwidth required by SSB, operators have to deal with the constant QRM that is inevitable when trying to squeeze 70 stations on a band, or band segment, built for 40 or 50. It’s like trying to wedge a plane full of 7 foot basketball players into regular coach class airline seats. It can be done, but no one is going to have a comfortable journey. The narrow bandwidth of CW is the first-class seat — champagne and hot towel optional.

Comparing CW with SSB in similar solar conditions, a good CW operator will almost always have a better score. A great CW operator is guaranteed a better score. CW is far superior in this regard, and is the reason why some operators avoid SSB events.

Before I let you go to practice your CW skills, let me be very clear that I do not possess any special god-given talent for CW. Mine are average at best. So, if I can do it, pretty much anyone can do it. I also started learning in my 40s, so it’s never too late, regardless of age.

Let me leave you with some quick take-home points:

  • Practice your CW every day for 30 to 40 minutes using Morse Runner or another similar program. Be sure it simulates a contest environment.
  • Stick with it. It will be frustrating and humbling at times, but also very rewarding. I promise.
  • Enter as many contests as you can, to keep honing your skills. In the process, you’ll work more stations and more stations will work you. A win-win scenario for every contester. If you’re in it for the DX only, that’s great too. You’ll work double the DX with two modes.

Best of luck in your CW endeavors. I look forward to seeing your call sign in the next Top 10 box!

Dah dah dih dih dit/dih dih dih dah dah!

Mitch, K7RL

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