Morse Code The Slow Way

I’ve been doing this ham radio thing for just over a year now. Even though I don’t talk very much, I still really enjoy listening and occasionally making long-distance (DX) contacts. One area of study I’ve been dragging my feet on for ages is learning Morse code. If you’re not into ham radio, you may assume that Morse code died out with the telegraph, but the amateur radio bands are still alive with Morse code. Up until 2007, knowing “the code” was still an FCC requirement to obtain the highest level ham license, and before 1990 it was required of every license holder, regardless of level. Those of us who got our ham radio licenses after 2007 never had to experience the sweaty palms of an FCC Morse code exam!

In ham circles you’ll often see Morse code shortened to CW, “Continuous Wave”. If you want to get technical, of course, CW refers to the mode by which Morse code is sent, and not to Morse code itself. Nevertheless, the terms are often interchangeable in casual speech. CW is still a popular way to communicate in amateur radio for a couple of very good reasons. First, as I mentioned, for the first 86 years of amateur radio it was the lingua franca of radio communication and the majority of hams world-wide know it. And second, it cuts through the noise and static much better than voice modes do, so it’s one of the best ways to communicate long distances with low power on noisy bands. If you want to beat it, you’ll need a computer and a digital radio mode like JT65 or PSK31. For CW, all you need is the radio, your brain and a key.

My personal journey to learning Morse code has been a bit rocky. I started out last year with the very best of intentions: I wanted to be able to operate CW in the ARRL Field Day contest this past June. Of course, that was a bit ambitious. By the time Field Day had come and gone I was still woefully unprepared. But I’ve soldiered on. One thing that has really helped is the so called the Farnsworth method. Morse code is very aural, in fact it’s a terrible idea to think of it visually as dots and dashes. You really need to hear the sound of the “dits and dahs” that make up each character, and you need to hear them at the appropriate speed. Since 20 words per minute (WPM) is the de-facto standard for casual conversation over CW, that’s the speed that you want to study the sound of the letters. With the Farnsworth method, a long space is left between each 20 WPM character, so instead of the way it would normally be sent,

“di-dah . dah-di-di-dit . dah-di-dah-dit . dah-di-dit”

You practice by listening to a much slower version that still lets you hear the characters the way they’re meant to sound,

“di-dah . . . . . . . dah-di-di-dit . . . . . . . dah-di-dah-dit . . . . . . dah-di-dit”

I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I usually pick things up pretty quickly. I’m a fast learner. Learning CW, on the other hand, has humbled me. Even with all the amazing software and tools we have available now to help study, the best I can do is to improve just ever so painfully and incrementally every time I practice. I’ve been doing this for almost six months now, and I’m still a clumsy neophyte who makes a ton of mistakes.

Really, I cannot imagine doing this years ago, when all you had were tapes and records to study with, and when you had to learn to copy at 5 WPM before you could even get the most basic license. What a huge barrier to entry it must have been!

But there is good news. This past week I’ve felt a sort of breakthrough. Finally, after all this time, I’ve gotten to the point where there are no characters that really make me stumble – I know them all, albeit slowly. I feel pretty confident that if I had to take a 5 WPM morse test right now, I could pass it. With a bit of luck, that means that I can finally start cranking up the speed and moving from 5 WPM to 7 WPM to 13 WPM and eventually 20 WPM much faster than it’s taken me to get to where I am today.

It’s been an interesting journey. I’m nervous as hell to get on the air and make my first CW contact, but I think I’ll be ready pretty soon. Onward and upward, as they say!

New Call Sign

Well, I finally have my new call sign. It showed up in the FCC ULS database on Friday, and I’m still getting used to it. Say hello to NF6Q!

It definitely feels a bit weird to have a new call sign. But I’m pleased to have a call that’s easier to say and much more friendly to DX.

Now I’m working on a new QSL card. I got a very stock card for KJ6HZC, so I’d like something a bit nicer for NF6Q.

Going Mobile

My home location is unfortunately very poorly suited to ham radio. That’s a subject for another post, but suffice it to say that if I want to get on the air I need to go portable. A lot of the time I adore going out and setting up on a park bench, putting on the headphones, and making QSOs. But other times I’d like to be able to just turn on the radio and get on the air without all that setup and tear-down fuss, you know?

Well, that’s where Going Mobile fits in, I hope. Since my only HF radio at this time is made for portable and mobile use anyway, I’ve decided to do a proper mobile installation in my Honda Element. I’ve been inspired by KI6ZHD’s excellent mobile install that bypasses the main car electrical system except to keep the radio batteries charged. I’ve just ordered a TG Electronics N8XJK voltage booster and West Mountain Radio Powergate PG40S to handle power distribution and charging. Once the wallet recovers a little, I’ll head down to Ham Radio Outlet and inquire about the Little Tarheel II mobile HF antenna and a good mount.

Hopefully by the end of October I’ll be getting on the air with a /M after my call sign. It’s not exactly the DX-ing wonder of a home ham shack that I’d like, but it’s a heck of a lot better than not being able to get on the air at all!

Vanity

I spent a rather silly amount of time agonizing over what vanity call sign to pick. In the end, I chose a 2×1, and some backup 1×3’s. I won’t say yet what they are, but I should know in a few days which one I’m likely to get. To be honest any of them would be great, and they’re all much less tongue-twisty than KJ6HZC is. Will I have a new call sign before Pacificon on October 15th? Maybe, but only three weeks to process a vanity application is pretty optimistic. Wish me luck!

Success!

After a couple of weeks of solid study, I drove to the Saratoga Fire House this morning and took the Amateur Extra upgrade exam. Boy was I nervous! After all this time, I still sweat every test like a Freshman in college. But I didn’t have to worry. I got all 50 questions correct, didn’t miss a single one. So as of 10:05 AM this morning, I’m KJ6HZC/AE.

Once my new license class shows up in the FCC database, I’m going to pick out a vanity call. Back when I started this whole process, I thought I’d be perfectly happy with whatever call the FCC gave me, but as it turns out KJ6HZC is just plain hard to say. Almost everybody gets it wrong the first time they come back to me on the air. And I don’t blame them! I had trouble with it myself for about two weeks after I got my General. So it’s time to get something short, sweet, easy to say, and DX-friendly. I’m thinking a 2×1, since 1x2s in 6 land are rarer than hens’ teeth.

But for now, I’m just happy to get on the lower parts of the bands for the first time and see what’s out there.

Time to Upgrade

I have such a knack for ignoring this blog, haven’t I? Well, nothing like a new post to help me break out of the habit.

These past few months I’ve been having more and more fun with amateur radio. Why on Earth didn’t I get into this sooner? Well, I’ll be honest, when I was younger I didn’t have any interest at all in ham radio. It’s not that I was un-intereseted in it. It’s more that it simply didn’t enter my mind. I gave it no thought. So of course I wasn’t a ham. It wasn’t until I indulged in a desire to pick up a short-wave radio in 2008 that the idea popped into my head to check out this ham radio thing.

I’m glad I did, of course. I’ve been enjoying the hobby tremendously since getting my license in May. In July I bought a Yaesu FT-857D radio and a Buddipole antenna, and I’ve been operating from a local park almost every weekend. Some weekends I make no contacts. Some weekends I only make three or four. But it’s always fun!

There are three amateur license classes in the United States. The first, Technician class, grants quite a lot of privileges on VHF and UHF bands, but only very limited access to the HF bands. The next level up is the license I currently hold, the General class, which grants full privileges on a lot of the HF spectrum too. It’s certainly good enough to do some DXing (that’s what we hams call talking to folks in other countries), but it doesn’t allow access to all frequencies, including some of the most used ones.

Well, now that I know that I’m here to stay, I think it’s time to upgrade to the highest level license, Amateur Extra. It allows the most access to every amateur radio band. I’ve been studying hard, and I’ve finally picked a date. On September 18, I’ll take the exam and, with luck, I’ll pass on the first try. It’ll be nice not to have to keep triple-checking to make sure I haven’t accidentally let my VFO wander down below 14.225 before I transmit!

Next up is finishing the other task I’ve been working on for the past few months: learning CW (morse code). It hasn’t been a requirement for the license since 2007, but it’s not fading away. In fact, it seems to be regaining some popularity. There’s no doubt that it’s still incredibly useful, and one of the very best modes to use when doing DX! I can’t wait until it’s second nature for me. Unfortunately, for the time being it’s still “painfully slow” rather than “smooth and easy”.

Wish me luck!

Ham Radio

Last Saturday I drove down to the Saratoga Fire Station and took the FCC amateur radio license exam. Well, actually I took two of them; one for the Technician class, and another for the General class. On Wednesday, I got my call sign, KJ6HZC.

I’m still surprised at how fast it went. I first got interested in ham radio in 2008, on a whim. I bought the ARRL Technician class exam study book and read the first two chapters, but then put it down when life took a couple of left turns. It wasn’t until April of this year that I picked it back up and decided I really wanted to study and get my license. Within a few weeks I was comfortable enough with the Technician and General material to schedule my exam session, and just four days after the exam, my call sign was in the FCC database. Remarkable! I understand that in the “Good Old Days,” when exams were given at FCC field offices by disinterested bureaucrats, it could take three months or more to get a license after the exam. That’s right, it may be hard to believe, but apparently the Government is actually more efficient now, at least at the FCC.

I’m just dipping my toes in the water at this point. My only radio is a Yaesu VX-6r handheld (or HT, for “Handy-Talky”) with a Diamond SRH77CA 2m/440 antenna, so I’m not going to be doing any DX’ing any time soon. But I do hope to pop up on some of the local 2m and 440 repeaters and talk nets from time to time.