Slowly decoding CW

I’ve been trying to learn Morse code off and on for about a year now. It started with a weekend CW workshop the club sponsored, in which I learned the introductory characters, E, I, S, H and T, M and O. Apparently I didn’t attend the second workshop for the rest of the characters…

Since then, I haven’t progressed far beyond that. I tried using a Koch method trainer on my iPhone (Ham Morse) and learned a few more characters. For what it’s worth, I did manage to learn how to tap out “CQ de KK4DSD” although if I heard my own call on the air, I doubt I could discern it.

CW “for fun” doesn’t really interest me. Just like some hams may not give a rip about digital modes. The reason I want to learn CW is a practical one: I really like operating QRP, and CW is still the most reliable mode to use in regards to that endeavor. I’ve heard that 5 watts on CW is similar to 100 watts SSB. Along that same line, I believe my DXing will be more successful on the 100 watt home station if I could operate in CW from time to time.

This weekend I finally got my hands on the tools to help me progress in learning code. My pal Steve loaned me his Bencher paddles and an MFJ keyer, which is a nice little box for practicing. I’d spoken to some guys in the club about the advantages of learning with a traditional straight key or the iambic paddles. Despite some warnings, I wanted to go straight to paddles, because I felt like my code would be cleaner.

Something about the paddles just appeals to me. It’s all about rhythm. I have always been an aspiring musician and learned the basics on several instruments through the years. I’ve never been good enough to really play mind you… but I’ve fooled around with piano, several styles of guitar playing, programming drum machines, samplers and sequencers and computer-based music.

Using the iambic paddles reminds me of musical instruments. It’s vaguely like using an Akai MPC sampler to compose live drum beats. Except the beat keeps changing. I recall the one time I attempted to accompany someone on guitar. I didn’t know the song very well and before I knew it, I was lost and the whole affair turned into an embarrassing train wreck. That’s the same feeling I get when I add one too many dits or dahs, which, as I’ve discovered, is pretty easy to do.

When I was playing guitar a lot, I’d always practice the major scale and all the positions of the pentatonic, up and down the neck of the guitar. I’d keep practicing until I could hit each note perfectly. Now I’m doing the same thing with these paddles, except I’m trying to tap out CQ CQ CQ, my callsign, friends’ callsigns, my name, anything… Last night I repeatedly tapped out YYZ and pretended I was Neil Peart from Rush…

I’m actually having some fun with it. I really appreciate “squeeze keying” too. I think the trick is to not over-think it. Relax and find “the zone,” where you aren’t fighting against the speed of the keyer. I think a few beers before practice would probably help.

I’ve learned most of the characters now, including the numbers. They aren’t all in muscle memory yet though. The other great challenge will be training myself to copy them when I hear them. In some ways, I think that’s MUCH harder.

I put myself on notice yesterday. We had a discussion about summer Field Day last night on the local net. I announced my goal was to be able to work CW by the time Field Day arrived. Not saying I want to operate exclusively on CW for Field Day, but just that I’d like to be able to conduct simple QSOs by that time.

I have a lot of work ahead of me.

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