Learning the code (again) – Part 1

In the past year or so, I’ve become interested in operating digital modes rather than voice; as an offshoot of this activity, I became interested in Morse code, sometimes referred to as the original digital mode.

I was first licensed in 1978, at a time when there was still a requirement to demonstrate a proficiency in receiving Morse code in order to be licensed. I sweated out the exam, which at that time was held in the old Customs House tower in Boston, MA, and proved a “proficiency” at the speed of 13 words per minute. And then I promptly forgot it.

Fast forward forty years, and my interest is piqued because of how well Morse code works in horrible conditions. Right now, as any ham who operates in the HF spectrum knows, we are in a sunspot minimum. This translates to poor long distance communications. Morse code, in part because of its simplicity, works pretty well in adverse conditions. The human ear can discern the on/off signal easier than the varied levels of a voice signal, so it’s easier to hear and understand marginal signals.

My problem was, I didn’t really know Morse code. Oh, I retained a pretty good amount of the code, and if you sent me a 5 word per minute message, I’d figure it out. But anything faster? No way. So I put my head down and did some online studying, and practicing, and got my speed up to a scorching 8 words per minute. Maybe 10 wpm with a tail wind. And there I stayed. I was never going to be able to be effective as a communicator at a shaky 10 wpm, so I knew I had to take drastic steps.

One of the first things I did was join the Straight Key Century Club. The SKCC celebrates the use of Morse code transmitted by a manual keying device. This could be a straight key ,a side-swiper, or a bug. But no paddles and electronic keyers. The beauty of joining this group is that most of the gang in SKCC have no problem going slow. In fact, they’ll go as slow as you need them to, in most cases. This made for a relaxed way to get some on the air experience. And they’re a genuinely fun group of people.

But SKCC only got me so far. I needed something to push me. So I signed up for CW Academy.

CWA is an offering of CW Ops, a group of CW enthusiasts who revel in speed and accuracy. This is rarefied air for guys like me, and I was a bit apprehensive about signing up. But it was free, and the regimen of an 8 week course would force me to put my nose to the grindstone. I assumed I’d be assigned to the Level 1 class, which is designed to bring one up to 10 wpm of solid code. Imagine my surprise when, based on the results of a questionnaire filled out at the time of my application, I was assigned to a Level 2 class, where the goal is 20 wpm. Gulp. Maybe this was a mistake.

To be continued…