Learning Morse Code to Operate Continuous Wave (CW)

For a very long time—even before becoming a ham—I’ve wanted to learn Morse code.  As a child, this “secret” code fascinated me. As I grew older, the fascination remained. As a geeky adult wanting to get in to ham radio, it was a barrier to entry. Then, getting my general class amateur radio license in 2015, my interest was renewed, even though it was no longer a necessity.

The magic of radio has always been just that for me—magic. I know how it works, a lot more so than I did before studying to get my ticket.  But it’s still magic. So in my amateur radio journey so far, I’ve looked for ways to maximize the magic. And there are so many ways to do this in the hobby.  To me, one of these is CW (Continuous Wave) operation, using Morse code.

My primary interest in ham radio became Summits on the Air (SOTA) because it combines my love of the outdoors with my love of radio. Before I managed to purchase my first HF rig, my first SOTA activations were FM-only, on handheld radios.  This can be amazingly effective if you’re in a really populated area, or up really high. My first activation was in a really populated area (the San Francisco Bay Area), and my second (successful) activation was the summit of Mount Whitney—the highest peak in the contiguous United States. With an HT and a telescoping antenna on VHF frequencies, I was able to make contacts 90+ miles (144+ km). Great! But what about the hundreds or thousands of miles possible with HF? I wanted that. So finally, in October of 2016, I got my first HF rig — the Yaesu FT-817.

The Yaesu FT-817 can do it all.  All modes, all (most) bands.  But with one major limitation: 5 watts. But it’s really portable!  It didn’t much time operating on SSB to notice that making contacts at 5 watts (especially at this point in the sunspot cycle) can be pretty difficult.  And enough time spent around SOTA led me to notice that the most successful activations (at least here in the US) were done with CW/morse.  Noticing that I could get my 5 pounds (2.3kg) of gear down to 2 pounds (1kg) or less by learning Morse code and getting a CW-only rig, really got my interest going.  This weight becomes critically important if you’re doing SOTA activations by running/fast hiking to the summit.

There are modes not requiring proficiency in Morse code, which are far more capable than SSB with regards to their signal-to-noise properties.  Some examples: PSK31, JT-65, and WSPR.

PSK31 is a conversational mode (you type/say whatever you want – there’s no pre-set structure). It’s fast enough to almost keep up with typing. It takes up *way* less bandwidth than voice, and requires less signal in relation to noise (signal to noise ratio / SNR).

JT-65, and JT-9 are *amazing* at digging signals out of the noise. But they have a pre-set group of messages. Rewarding in that distant contacts can be made with minimal power, but each contact takes several minutes! I love these modes while I’m doing other things.

WSPR is more of a beacon. One does not “make contacts” on WSPR. But if you want to see how far your 100mw or 500mw signal can go, on your crappy antenna setup, this is your mode. It can decode signals you can’t even tell are there.

But what if you want to send and receive communication over long distances (or short!), using minimal equipment and minimal bandwidth? CW. High power results without the high power. Literally. It has an approximate 12dB advantage, so if you’re running a little 4 watt CW rig, it’s like running over 50 watts SSB! There are numerous other advantages to running CW. Morse code is somewhat of a universal language. Do you want to actually have a QSO with those stations you’re now able to reach because of the extra CW reach? The code is known far and wide.

All of that was enough to make me want to learn CW.  But what made it fun and what made me think it was possible was Morse Toad. It teaches the characters in a fun, “gameified” way.  And it teaches them at around 20wpm. Unfortunately, it teaches you the letters and numbers and stops there. It doesn’t go into groups of letters or any punctuation. So it’s a great way to get familiar with the basic characters’ sounds.

I needed to take the next step. So at the beginning of this year, I signed up for CWops’ CW Academy.  I got put on the wait list, scheduled into the upcoming September class. I believe they have different instructors for different geographic regions and I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.  There were apparently some people that had dropped out of an earlier class (in April) and I was contacted by the instructor, but not yet ready to make the time commitment to start at the time.  So I’m still set for the September class.

Since I’ve been stepping up my SOTA game lately, I’ve renewed my interest in CW, after having taken a break for a while. In looking for things I could do to prepare myself for the upcoming CW Academy class, I discovered the materials for the class are already available on the CWops website.  I’ll be digging in to those to get myself ready!