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How Do You Spell That?

There is one question you will rarely hear during a CW QSO: “How do you spell that?” CW (or Morse Code as it should be more correctly called) is always sent letter by letter, number by number, prosign by prosign. Unsurprisingly CW exposes spelling errors much more readily than SSB/phone just because of the way it is sent.

I first learned Morse Code when I was a kid. A neighbour and I would send messages to each other using flashlights. When I restarted my CW journey, as a ham, rather late in life, I was told that if I practiced hard enough I would eventually be able to hear whole words. I’m not there yet. In fact I’m not sure if I will ever be there. The logic of the premise defeats me. If we spoke to each other by spelling out the letters of each word I would find it very difficult to understand what somebody is saying.

When I first got my licence it was necessary to pass a Morse Code test in order to gain the privilege of working the HF bands. I attended a class run by an old-timer (now SK) who taught us the required 5 words per minute using the Farnsworth technique. This involves sending each letter at a much faster speed but with big gaps between letters. After a few weeks, as we gained proficiency, our instructor told us his good friend, a certified examiner, would be sitting in on the class to monitor our progress. And, to make us comfortable about eventually taking the test he would be conducting a “mock CW test” that evening. At the end of the evening we were told we had all passed the test and could now apply for our upgraded licences. A cute trick to get us over the nervousness of being tested!

Ah yes, nervousness! I still had to face the ultimate CW test of getting on the air and making a CW QSO. Would my brain freeze? Yes, and it still does sometimes. CW operators are notorious for bad sending, especially for trying to send too fast and running letters together. I remember being completely stymied by one op who kept sending “nag?, nag?”. Eventually I figured out he was asking me for my name. If you know Morse Code you will understand why.

We are currently in a very deep solar minimum which makes HF communication more of a challenge. One of the things I enjoy most about the hobby is experimentation with RF propagation techniques. There are various ways to help get a signal out when propagation is bad and I spend a lot of time trying them out. One of the easiest ways is to use CW. It can be shown mathematically that 5 watts of CW is equivalent to 100 watts of SSB/phone, so 100 watts of CW will have the same punch as about the legal maximum.

I have played around with digital modes, but since my real passion is operating outdoors I don’t want to have to carry a computer around in my backpack. My most basic portable CW station will all fit into a very small, lightweight bag and that includes enough batteries (I use homemade Li-Ion packs) for several hours of operation.

Learning Morse Code and becoming a proficient operator takes time and practice, but for anybody willing to undertake the journey it is very rewarding. Decades ago, the military took raw recruits and turned them into high speed Morse Code operators in as little as 2 weeks. The most famous military Morse Code operator was the legendary, late country music star Johnny Cash. He claimed he found it easy and seemed to possess a natural talent for it. For us mere mortals the journey can be a little longer. It is taking me an equally long time to become proficient at the guitar – sorry Johnny; I do admire both your CW and your music. If only ... if only!

John, VA3KOT
Volunteer GBARC Net Manager
SKCC #11989T NAQCC #7155 FISTS #19777
May the Morse be with you.

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