Losing my mind with CW

My posts here have been sparse lately. I’ve only logged two contacts in the past month. I haven’t been reading many of the radio blogs and ham news sites I typically enjoy. I haven’t been interested in working DX stations, or fooling with digital modes. My activity on the local club nets has become little more than a “check me in short time” and then I drop off.

I really don’t feel like myself, and Morse code is to blame.

Trying to learn code has been the most difficult aspect of this hobby to-date. Since someone gave me paddles and a keyer more than a month ago, learning the code has become the only aspect of the hobby that I care about. When I sit down at the radio, I’m not tuning around looking for stations to contact. I’m practicing the alphabet on the key. If I listen to anything, it’s the ARRL slow code practice sessions on 40 meters Tuesday and Thursday nights.

The good news is, I AM seeing small incremental improvements. For example, if I hear ‘I,’ followed by ‘N,’ I suspect I’m going to hear a ‘G.’ Imagine my delight when that G does come. If I hear an O to start a new word, I can often predict the F that follows. I can occasionally copy the familiar cadence of ‘de,’ and some of the frequently used Q-codes. I had a breakthrough moment a few weeks ago when I actually copied a Morse code identifier on a local repeater.

Numbers remain difficult unless I’m expecting them. Commas, periods and other punctuation are tricky; I simply have not studied them, with the exception of the ‘/’ because that does appear in callsigns from time to time.

The slow code practice (I believe it’s around 15 WPM, still plenty fast for me) has been helpful in piecing together real words from code. I’ve tried about three different Koch trainers, and they just aren’t working for me. The repetition becomes mind numbing and I lose interest quickly. Yet, the letters I have learned from the Koch method are burned into my head in a good way, so the method does work.

I believe there are several key points I need to address before I’m successful:

  • Listen for the distinct sound of the characters, not the individual dits and dahs. Any good code guy will tell you this. Now I understand. There is no time to be counting dits when the characters are coming at you like an avalanche.
  • Don’t get hung up trying to figure out a missed character. If you didn’t copy it, it’s already too late. Move on to what you can copy and keep going.
  • Listen for patterns. Most of us can easily copy the distinct dah-di-dah-di dah-dah-di-dah sound of a CQ call, even at very high speeds. Language follows patterns. Recognizing them will make anticipating that next character easier, and you can rely on memory copy, rather than writing out characters letter by letter. I spend a portion of my slow code practice without a pencil, eyes closed, trying to copy words in my head. So far, I can only make out very simple phrases, like I-N-G, O-F, and R-A-D-I-O.
  • Become familiar with the characters so that copying becomes a reflex. I know all the characters and numbers, but I don’t know SOME of them as well as I know others. I stumble on G, F and a few others. I’m guilty of counting the dits in numbers. I need to simply continue learning until I have the muscle memory.

It’s been frustrating, and I feel like I’ve sacrificed aspects of the hobby I once enjoyed for the sake of learning CW. When I want to experience something, or achieve a certain level of mastery, I fixate on it until it’s done. This is no different and I fully intend to succeed at all costs.

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