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So You Want To Learn CW III

A Communicator Reprise: Part 3

Last month we had the first of three parts of an article on Learning to Send CW. In this post we conclude the series.

Improving Your Fist

Once you have done enough practice with your paddles to be able to be comfortable with them, you will want to set the keyer speed to 15 wpm (if it isn’t there already). The faster rate of characters will force you to recognize characters at the 15 wpm rate. This is the first step to getting your code sending speed up. 

Certainly at the 15 wpm rate you are likely to make many more errors than you have been used to. Don’t slip back, however: continue sending each character at 15 wpm, but allow more time between characters so you are able to focus on making correct single characters only.

As you continue over future sessions you should find that you are able to allow somewhat less space between characters. Continue, for now, allowing extended space between words. 

Gradually, you will find that certain character strings (e.g. “ing”, “the”, etc.) occur repeatedly, and you are able to send the sequence almost as if it were a single unit. This is the time to become concerned about inter-character spacing. I find fldigi to be a very useful tool for decoding CW, and like to use it to help develop correct inter-character spacing. ( The program is free and has versions available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. 

After installing the program, connect an inexpensive microphone to the microphone port on your computer. If your computer doesn’t have a microphone port, but does have a built-in microphone (common with modern laptops) you will have to try to put the speaker from your code practice oscillator near the built-in microphone.

Configure fldigi to take its input from your computer microphone port. Set fldigi in CW mode (under Op Mode on the tool bar) and start sending CW for about 10 seconds. Now look on the waterfall display (bottom of window) and position the marker with the red lines so it spans the line running down the display, which will be at the frequency of your code practice oscillator. Now send some more code and you should start to see some characters in the upper yellow display (the receive window). If any of this is unclear, refer to the program documentation.

If you have things set up correctly, the characters in the yellow display should bear some resemblance to what you intended to send. If in doubt, try sending a series of “V”s with extended spacing. You should see a series of “V”s on the screen. If you have additional noise (garbage characters) showing up, refer to the program documentation to turn on and set a squelch level that permits decoding of only your sending (not background noise).
When you are convinced this is working correctly, start sending from your reference (book, newspaper, etc.). Send with extra inter-character spacing in the beginning. If you are forming your characters correctly, the correct character sequence will appear on the fldigi display. Once you have this working, now move to your usual sending rate but with extra spacing between the words.

Examine the characters showing up on the screen to see if they still match what you intended to send. Likely you will have some which will be incorrect, not because you sent the wrong character, but because you ran two or more characters together. You can experiment with this by sending the word “the” with accentuated inter-character spacing, and then reducing the inter-character spacing. When the spacing is adequate (or too much), there should be a clear “t” “h” and “e”. If the spacing between the “t” and “h”, for example, becomes too small, fldigi will interpret the two as one character and display a “6”. When this occurs you can see your inter-character spacing is inadequate and work on improving it to the point where the “t” and “h” are immediately adjacent, with no intervening spaces, but not run together as a “6”.

Continue, in this way, working on inter-character spacing for each successive word. You want each word to appear as a word with no extra internal spacing, and do not want any two characters to run together.

Once you have your inter-character spacing reliably correct, you can begin to reduce the inter-word spacing, as much as you are comfortable. If you find your words are running together, as shown by fldigi’s display, concentrate on adding just enough additional inter-word spacing until the words reliably appear as separate words on fldigi’s display.
You are now well on your way to developing a clean, understandable fist.

On-Air CW QSOs

When you are able to send code at an average rate of 10 wpm, you are ready for your first on-air CW QSO. This will be much harder than sending from a book, however, which is why you want to reach 10 wpm from a book before starting on-air.

As mentioned earlier, there are four steps in sending CW, and the techniques given to this point address only the last step. It is now time to address the first three steps: 1) What to say (the idea to be conveyed); 2) How to say it (the choice of words and syntax); and 3) How to spell the words. The pressure of a live QSO will make all four steps harder, but in particular, the pressure on you to address the first three steps in “real time” will force you to improve your CW skills the most.

When you begin to practice CW on the air, enlist friends who are at your level, or somewhat beyond, to join you for regular on-air rag-chews. There is no substitute for working together with at least one other person. Ideally, that person will be a non-critical partner who is developing their skills just as you are developing your skills. (Hence the desire of the SARC executive to have an active CW Interest Group.)

As you listen to the CW bands, you will often hear casual “HI, HOW COPY?” type short contacts, which follow a scripted series of exchanges: call signs, signal reports (RST), operator names, QTHs, and transceiver and antennas used at both ends. Then come the local weather reports if both parties wish to continue. After that it’s some variant of “TNX FER FB QSO ES 73” (CW-speak for “thanks for the contact, best wishes”). 

In this kind of contact you can write down the appropriate responses on a cue card and work your way down the list, much like sending from a book. To a large extent, you can even pre-program the responses in a memory keyer (as is commonly done for PSK31 contacts). But not with a rag-chew.

Just as is the case when in casual conversation, in a rag-chew your brain is forced to work on each of the four steps simultaneously. Just as chatting with someone you’ve just met at a party is a test of your conversational skills, rag-chewing is a real test of your CW skills. You are forced to think on the fly, in real time, and hope to avoid sounding like a total fool.  This is a critical step in the process of developing your CW skills.

It doesn’t matter for our purposes whether or not you are a natural rag-chewer. I, for example, would never engage in a rag-chew on SSB, but on CW I’m looking for the practice in the four steps of sending, and particularly the first three. When you are able to rag-chew in CW, freely sending whatever comes in to your head (with, we hope, some judgment applied), and have it come out in crystal clear, perfectly timed CW, you have arrived! (In case you are wondering, I’m no-where near that point yet, but I greatly admire those I hear doing just that a few kHz down the band.)

In your rag-chews, don’t worry if you think you don’t have anything to say. To simplify Step 1, I started by jotting down some notes before the scheduled QSO on the topics I would discuss. If necessary, describe the weather in some detail (but in your own words), or describe what you did since getting up in the morning. Describe the room you are sending from. Describe the clothes you are wearing. Detail what you had for your last meal, and why you chose that. It really doesn’t matter what you send, since you are practising sending, and your partner (one at a time for now; working several in the same QSO is harder and should be left for later) is practising receiving. Don’t send for longer than 60 seconds at a time before you go over to your partner to take a turn. 

Here are some tips for your on-air CW practice

Learn the basic structure, abbreviations, and pro-signs of standard CW QSOs. One basic reference is

As with any on-air activity, before starting make sure the frequency isn’t already in use, first by listening, and then by calling “QRL?”. Wait, still listening, and then about five seconds later (when anyone on frequency has had a chance to respond) again send “QRL? DE Your Call”. If there is still no answer, the frequency is yours.

Try to keep your individual transmissions short so you can develop a conversational style between you and your partner. Ideally you’ll get to the point where one of you will be able to ask the other a question and get a quick-turnaround answer, just as you would on a telephone.

At this stage of your skill development, send “KN” rather than “K” after each transmission, which indicates to other CW ops who might be listening that you don’t want other participants. (This won’t guarantee you don’t get other people calling you, but it will help. And be sure you understand this rule yourself so you don’t butt in uninvited on someone else’s QSO.)

The regulations in Canada require you to send your call sign at the start and end of a QSO, and every half-hour in between. So for short fast interchanges you can use “<BK>”, without signing, to invite your QSO partner to come back, and your partner can do the same with you. Just remember that, if you go beyond 30 minutes, you’ll each need to sign with your call, followed by “KN”. And don’t forget to sign again at the end of the QSO.
Unfortunately, my fingers sometimes keep sending when my brain gets busy trying to think of what to say next (Step 1), and so has stopped feeding them correctly spelled words (Steps 2 & 3). This is about as useful as the random characters that show up on your RTTY receive screen when listening between transmissions, and it can be very confusing to the other party in the QSO. Instead, train your fingers to send “<BT>” (the pro-sign for “ummmm”) when your brain is overloaded.

Sometimes you want your QSO partner to stand by for a short period of time while you “get your act together”. When this happens, send “<AS>”, the pro-sign for “hang tough buddy”. (Just don’t get so wrapped up in something else that you forget to go back to them.)

Sometimes my brain is so busy trying to select words and syntax for the part of the thought I haven’t started sending yet (Steps 2 & 3) that I leave out a few key words (or characters in words) in the part I’m sending. That can be embarrassing if the missing words or characters result in my message conveying a meaning quite different from my intention. Just as, when copying CW, you “copy behind”, when sending you “send behind”. We talk that way also, but after years of practice they seem to happen simultaneously and effortlessly. This is still difficult for me when sending CW, but I believe the solution is to relax and slow down, sending what I have already formulated and then sending a few “<BT>”s until I know what I want to say next.

Sometimes I forget how to spell words longer than five characters (Step 3) because my brain is juggling Steps 1 & 2. Like many of us, I spell by putting a word on paper and then fixing it when I recognize it doesn’t “look right”. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work with CW (although the CW text display on my Elecraft radios helps me see what I’ve just sent, which isn’t always what I planned). One way to address this is to learn the standard CW abbreviations for longer words (like “tomorrow”). This also speeds up the flow of conversation. For example, by the time a QSO-partner has sent “tomo” I can fill in the rest without listening, unless they are about to use the one other word my dictionary shows that starts with those characters, “tomography”, a word which doesn’t turn up often in my QSOs. Better to send just the CW abbreviation “TMW”. Abbreviations are good, if used properly.

In my experience, and that of a friend who is at about the same level of experience as I am, a form of Farnsworth keying, where the characters and words are sent at a higher rate and longer spacing is used between words, is easier to copy for developing CW ops. This is particularly true when you reach the level where you are copying the received code in your head, without pencil and paper.

Becoming Comfortable

With practice and familiarity, you will gradually gain comfort with CW rag-chews, and that will greatly improve your CW sending skills. Originally I would only work people I know. Then I found myself getting calls from people I’d never heard of but who wanted to work me (for whatever reason) while I was trying to contact my first regular on-air partner, Jay VE7KC, for our scheduled daily QSO.

Initially I felt uncomfortable using CW with someone I didn’t know, so I would try to politely explain I’m trying to make a sked with a friend, so couldn’t chat with them at that time. I’d give them a quick signal report and perhaps name exchange, say 73, and go back to calling Jay.

As time went on, occasionally strangers would break into our conversations (despite our use of KN). Often I’d let Jay, or later Deme VE7CRT and Jay, carry on the conversation with the stranger. I’d just sit and listen. But as my comfort with on-air CW has improved, I’m now finding that I am as likely as any of us to reply to the ham trying to break in, and do the initial RST, QTH, name exchange.

As mentioned earlier, there is no substitute for working with a friend when you begin. I started this way with Jay, VE7KC. Looking back in my (paper) log, I find that my first attempted QSO with Jay (when he was VE7OFH) was 6 May 2013. Initially we had a lot of trouble trying to work NVIS between our two physically close locations. My log shows those (initially, many futile) attempts until we learned the tricks of reliable NVIS. I strongly recommend keeping a paper log of your first CW QSOs as a record you can easily browse later.

My log also shows that on 10 January 2014 we added another friend (Deme, VE7CRT) to our regular QSOs. Lately we’ve added another ‘semi-regular’, Walt, VE7BGJ, who is often heard checking into our weekly SARC 2m net. And on occasion, hams we don’t know but who hear the QSO and just want to stop in and say “hi” join us for a visit. It has become fairly common, now, to have a four-way QSO going. 

And as this has developed, the continuing experience has helped both Jay VE7KC and I become much more comfortable letting the words and ideas flow freely from our “fists”. For my part, I no longer have to make notes to get through Step 1. Mostly I can manage Step 2 in real time. And I’m working on Step 3, with the help of strategic abbreviations (and occasional re-wordings!).

Good luck in your journey toward comfortable CW QSOs.

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