Monthly Archives: August 2013

To master CW at higher speeds: stay behind to get ahead

After reading more of The Art and Skill of Radio Telegraphy I agree that a good way to be able to read (and copy) high speed CW is to resist the temptation to write (either literally or in your mind) each character as you hear it. Instead, let the code you are receiving get 1-2 characters ahead of where you are actively hearing, so you are always “copying behind.” Your mind has a buffer you can tap into. Use that buffer to store those few characters being sent just ahead of where you are actively listening and copying.

By so doing, you can relax. But you must remain calm and confident you’re not going to worry about missing a few characters along the way.

It takes a little practice, but it can be done.

I’ve also bumped up my practice to include 35 wpm, even though I’m only able to get a word or two here and there. As the book says, listening to code well above what you can copy is also beneficial. I agree. One thing for sure is that after listening to 5-7 minutes of CW at 35 wpm, 25 wpm is practically a breeze.

Improving CW receiving speed

I’ve been reading “The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy” by William G. Pierpont, N0HFF (SK – 2003), 3rd revised edition July 6, 2001. According to Pierpont, a “skilled” operator can copy and send 35-40 wpm (p. 37). Although I realize this is a somewhat arbitrary measure, I’ve decided to set myself the goal of solid copy and keying at 40 wpm by December 2013. I’m already feeling more comfortable at 30 wpm, although I still have a ways to go before I am copying 100%. Still, his point is well taken, that to learn CW well you must take practice regularly and from a source sending perfect code. By so doing your brain learns the true sound of words sent.

I agree. A comparison is trying to learn to speak a new language by speaking with someone who has sloppy speech habits such as slurring words, mumbling or mispronouncing words. You may learn the language, but your own skill and accomplishment is diminished because what learned is defective.

As a lifelong devotee of CW it’s exciting to think of mastering code into the 40 wpm range and beyond. I first learned Morse code at about age 11 or 12. My Dad bought a code practice oscillator for me and would send me code to copy, then ask me to send code. He had saved or obtained a 1963 ARRL booklet, “Learning the Radiotelegraph Code” (see below) which, at the time cost $0.50. In it are lessons sung code practice groups. That’s where it all started for me.

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My desire to double my receiving and sending speed is really a new chapter for me in CW. I’ve spent years stuck in 2nd gear (20 wpm), which, now that I am knocking at the door of 30 wpm (3rd gear), seems relatively slow. That gives me the impetus to go for 40 wpm, knowing with that accomplishment, 30 wpm will seem relatively slow. I guess 50 wpm would be overdrive.

An ultimate goal is summed up in the book for as, “The “pro” in
code is completely relaxed: he knows he can read and copy it, even while doing something else.”

The book makes important points about best practices to improve CW skill and speed: “first, listening at any speed where we can understand all or nearly all of what is sent; next, there is listening at speeds where we can “read” maybe 75% of it; and finally there is listening to sending so fast that we can only catch some letters or a word here and there. Each kind is valuable.” And, “The essence of code learning, like language, is familiarity that means over-learning. That is, learning to the point where it is automatic, without thinking about how we are doing it: the dit and dash, or even the words.” And this too, “…the less hard we try, the better
we will receive. Don’t ever stop to try to figure out something you didn’t catch. Keep following the sender – keep listening and you will soon be getting enough to make sense out of every sentence, and in time you will get all of it.”

One final note. I’ve found Ham Morse to be an excellent app for CW practice (at any speed). This iPhone app provides multiple types of practice (words, pro signs, numbers, callsigns, QSOs, alphabet, punctuation, BBC news clips, or everything) along with fully adjustable speeds: from 5-50 wpm in 1 wpm increments. Highly recommended.

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72 for now. Back to practice!

Breaking the 30 wpm barrier – update

It’s been nearly 2 months since I set a goal of being able to copy CW at 30 wpm. I’m now doing 25 wpm at nearly 100% copy. At 30 wpm I’m about at about 50% copy but improving steadily.

I practice 3-5 times per week for about 15-20 minutes per session using the W1AW code practice site which offers practice up to 40 wpm. At some point I hope to reach and exceed 40 wpm, then I’ll need to find another code practice resource.

Now that my speed continues to improve it’s great to be able to copy at higher rates completely without writing anything. At these higher speeds CW becomes much more like conversing in a language and not just “copying code.”

I find that the W1AW code practice is more challenging than copying CW in a QSO, because it’s more difficult to anticipate what is being received. Concentration is crucial. During a QSO, especially brief QSO’s containing standard information (RST, OP & QTH) it’s much easier to copy at high speed. My sense is that if I can copy even at 50% at 30 wpm from W1AW, I can probably hold my own at 30 wpm in a QSO.

Of course when it comes to contesting, higher speeds are even easier on CW since the exchange is so brief, typically just a few numbers or a location abbreviation.

Perhaps by year-end I’ll be up in the 40 wpm range!

I just stopped by K0RU’s site and listened to a sample of 50 wpm CW. It’s hard to imagine copying at that rate, but Rob notes he can copy above 70 wpm for brief periods. For him CW is a language not a mode. I would have to agree.

The 2013 Pacific Northwest DX Convention

On August 3, 2013 I attended the 58th Pacific Northwest DX Convention in Spokane, Washington. It’s been held every summer since 1955! This year’s convention was my first, but I came away very impressed with the organization and speakers.

Randy, K7TQ, Convention Chairman and his team did an excellent job organizing the convention, bringing in top-notch speakers, and offering great door prizes. The sponsorship of the convention rotates among the Willamette Valley DX Club, the British Columbia DX Club, and the Western Washington DX Club.

This year the Spokane DX Association hosted the convention, which put it near my backyard in Moscow, Idaho.

There were over 20 door prize contributors, including Ham Radio Outlet, Tigertronics, Writelog Software, West Mountain Radio, Alpha Amps, the ARRL, and The Daily DX. ICOM and Yaesu were on hand with displays and give-aways.

Randy, W7TJ, led off the presentations on Saturday morning with a very serious talk entitled, “Preparing for the Propagation Winter.” The talk focused on the current solar minimum our Sun is experiencing, in which solar activity is quite low, sunspots are much less frequent and of smaller size and intensity. All these factors, and more, mean HF propagation conditions are not nearly as strong as in previous years. Randy suggested that low-band DXing (80 and 160 meters) might be something to take more seriously.

I also heard,subsequently, that our Sun is in the process of flipping its magnetic poles. Currently the south magnetic pole of the Sun has already flipped. The North magnetic pole will soon flip as well, which has far-reaching consequences not just for Earth and our immediate solar system, but, as far as scientist know, even beyond!

For now, I plan to soldier on with my QRP work on 40-10 meters. Not enough real estate for the likes of 80 or 160 meter antennas. HI

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The second speaker, Lance, W7GJ, gave a brilliant follow-on presentation about 6 meter moonbounce work he did during a recent DXpedition to French-owned Clipperton Island, off the west coast of Mexico.

Lance’s presentation introduction was a perfect lead-in after Randy’s talk, as 6 meters is less dependent on ionospheric propagation. In fact, lower solar activity means 6 meters is becoming ideal for moonbounce work. I know Lance peaked my curiosity! It’s amazing what he accomplished with his 20-foot yagi.

Just getting to Clipperton Island turned out to be quite an adventure as Lance explained. During the DXpedition he made 50 moonbounce contacts under conditions that included high winds loaded with salt spray which corroded some of the gear.

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Geoff, W0CG/PJ2DX was up next and gave a very interesting look inside the world of station PJ2T (Curacao), one which many of you have no doubt worked over the years (myself included). Ever wonder why you hear PJ2T on the air all time time? That’s because it IS on the air all the time! Geoff shared stories of what it takes to keep the station on the air, in terms of station maintenance, legal and governmental paperwork, and operating. I have a whole new appreciation for PJ2T and would love to visit and operate from such a fabulous QTH. But Geoff’s presentation brought home the reality that keeping PJ2T on the air is literally a full-time job for himself and the support team. Interested in helping out? Contact Geoff.

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Jim, K9JF, presented, “The DX’ers favorite wallpaper,” next and did a fine job talking about the wide range of awards he has earned over his long career in ham radio. It’s hard to believe he’s been able to hold down a full-time job and still garner all these awards and QSOs!

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Next, Elvin, JA3CZY, gave a great presentation entitled, “The state of amateur radio in Japan.” If his presentation is any indication, Japanese hams are operating in fine style. He shared photos of some of the most amazing antenna farms I’ve ever seen. His QTH is no slouch either, with a transmission line running from his QTH to a roof-top location located some 1200 feet away and about 14 stories in the air. The antenna tower can be raised, lowered and rotated remotely. There is also a video camera mounted nearby so he can keep an eye on the whole set up. I spoke with Elvin just after his presentation and told him that I fully agree with one of the thoughts he left us with: Just call CQ! He noted that everyone is always amazed at how much activity there is during contests. His philosophy is that if more people would try calling CQ during off-contest periods, the bands would show more activity. I suspect he is right.

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We heard next from Dave, NN1N from ARRL, who has made a point of collecting callsigns over the years. I believe he has had over one dozen. He has a passion for collecting obscure QSL cards and challenged the audience to identify the locations of such calls as LY1000BY, Q2MK, VS9UA, AR1WW, and 3B2HA. Can you guess? He stumped most of us with his very entertaining presentation.

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Bob, W9KNI, presented on Digging Out the Rare DX. Many of you may know Bob’s excellent book, The Complete DX’er, now in its 3rd edition. It’s an excellent read for the serious DX chaser. Bob shared the wisdom he has gained over the years for best practices and techniques for consistently making rare contacts. Ultimately it gets down to a lot of dedication, late nights, hard work, careful note taking, careful tuning and listening, knowledge of the bands and propagation, and consistent effort over time. Bingo.

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As part of the convention, the Idaho DX Association, which I recently joined, was welcomed as a new participating member of the Spokane DX Association. IDXA will now be able to compete along with the SDXA for the annual DX Challenge Cup. As our total score improves over time, IDXA will be able to compete on its own for the cup. I hope to be a key contributor to that effort, starting with my work as IDXA contest coordinator along with Emmett, NA7EM, the founder and current president of IDXA.

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If you’re in Vancouver, BC in the summer of 2014 please plan to attend the next Pacific Northwest DX Convention. If it’s anything like this year’s it will be well worth the trip! Good DX!