Teaching a New Ham Old Tricks, or, Can CW Really be Treated Like Any Other Digital Mode?

I was introduced to Amateur Radio in the late 60’s when my father was stationed at the Air Force Base at Goose Bay, Labrador. I thought it was amazing that a radio operator could communicate around the world with what seemed to be minimum effort. As a Boy Scout, we had the opportunity to visit various HAM Shacks on the base. I learned Morse code on a straight key and built my own code practice oscillator(s). I even have many keys, bugs and paddles in my collection. These experiences actually got me interested in electricity and electronics, which is my day-job today. I built many radios and other systems over the years but never got my HAM license.

In 2008, when my son turned 12, the same age I was when I first was introduced to the hobby, I thought it was time to do the same for him. He earned his Technician license and I earned my Extra. Over the years I decided I wanted to be a “collector”, so I went through the normal progression of Worked All Continents, Worked All States and DXCC. But then I ran across the ARRL Triple Play award which required a WAS in phone, digital and CW.  I have already worked all the states in phone and digital, how hard could it be to do the same in CW? I tuned in to the CW part of the bands and was shocked to find out that HAMs send CW a lot faster than the Boy Scouts I practiced with.

Since I’m a solution oriented person and did not want to admit defeat, I reached out to local HF operators and asked them for recommendations. They were all very friendly and helpful. Unfortunately like with any technology, you ask 3 people their opinions and you get 5 answers of what the “BEST” solution is. So I took the recommendations and started to evaluate them. I eventually found the solution most intuitive to me was CwGet but you will need to find the one that is most comfortable with your operating style.  CwGet is a free program which decodes CW and provides a text screen with decoded data.  If you send the CwGet developer a couple of dollars, they will send you a license key which will allow you to save your configuration setting if the defaults are not to your liking. Using this software I found that most HAMs are sending code at 20+WPM and during contests they were approaching 40+WPM.

My radio has 4 CW programmable buttons, many other radios have 8+. After programming the buttons with what I thought would be the common exchanges needed, I got on the air. I limited myself to only returning calls to stations that my 4 buttons would support. After 50+ contacts, I thought I needed more capabilities. So I did a little research and bounced some questions off my local Elmer Ray (WA6OWM) and I settled on CwType, another free tool from the developer of CwGet. After programming the 36 CwType buttons I can now participate in QSOs for almost all Contests and QSO parties. I have now logged 500+ CW contacts and worked 46 of the 50 states I need for WAS Triple Play (so any day now!!!).

The Challenge: Along came the 2017 Field Day and the SBARC primary CW Operator (RAY, WA6OWM) had to be on the road and normal backup CW operators were also not available. So I stepped in and said “piece of cake,” I’ll support the CW operation for Field Day. The response was mixed, some rolled their eyes, some said you can’t operate CW without using the paddle, however some of the newer HAMs said count us in. So on the morning of Field day, I set up my rig, brought along my $200 laptop, an external monitor for demonstration purposes and started Elmering several candidate operators. By the time Field Day was over we had matched the number of CW contacts that were made in previous years by the club. Not once did we touch a paddle, even though I had 3 available for any operators that wanted to use them.

The Conclusion: In today’s world of computers we now have tools that allow you to operate CW in the same way we operate any digital modes. HAMs still need to know the exchanges required and the contest rules. HAM’s that hold Novice and Technician licenses can have access to the CW portions of 80m, 40m, 15m and 10m. By participating in CW activities I have improved my CW ear and I can also recognize my call sign at 30+WPM.

By Jerry Shaw, KI6RRD