Learning the Code (again) – Part 4

We’ve now finished 6 weeks of CW Academy. The work hasn’t really gotten any easier, although at times now it surprises me when I hear a snippet of code on the air and I know what was said. I don’t know why that should surprise me, as that has been the goal of this course all along, but practicing with canned files and doing it for real are two very different things.
On the air I no longer strain to pick out call signs, or signal strength reports, or names. Casually listening in to a conversation isn’t too much of a strain. This all depends on how fast the stations are sending, of course. Anything much over 20 words per minute and it still sounds a bit like swarming bees to me. But, progress. Yay!
At this point in the class I can say that the methodology employed by CW Ops works. All it takes is a commitment on the part of the participant to put in the required study time. What’s required? Count on at least an hour a day of receiving practice, and 30 minutes of sending practice. I know, that sounds like a lot of time, but the only way you’ll see progress is to keep at it and practice. Maybe, at some point, the times required for listening and sending will flip flop; that will depend on how well you send the code. Everyone is different, and the times required will be different as well. Be patient. Relax.
I’m happy to have signed up for this voyage, even though there were times when I thought I was going to call it a day. Sticking it out has paid off in the form of the skills I’ve gained as well as the new hams I’ve met. Using the code when on the air is enjoyable, and not frightening. Looking at my logbook yesterday, I discovered that in my last 50 contacts, I’ve used voice once. That is a tremendous change over my previous hamming. I now use the code because I enjoy it, and can relax a bit when using it. That was my stated goal in taking this class. Goal achieved.
The class I’m in has decided to meet once a week through the summer, in order to keep our skills up to par and sharpen them a bit further. Plus, it’s a fun group of guys who all have a pretty good sense of humor. One of them is a sailor, so I don’t know how much we’ll see him during prime sailing season, but I’m sure he’ll make an effort to join in. Maybe Maritime Mobile on Skype?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, CWA holds 3 levels of classes; level 1 for those who don’t know or only barely know the code, level 2 for those who are OK at about 10 words per minute, and level 3 for those who are comfortable at 16-20 words per minute. My intention was to be put into level 1, and to then survive level 2, and I never once intended to proceed to level 3. As you know if you’ve been reading along, I skipped level 1. If I got comfortable at any speed north of 15 WPM, I told myself that would be enough, and I didn’t need level 3.
My level 3 class starts in September.
It’s kind of like a drug.

To be continued…

Learning the Code (again) – Part 3

Midway through the fifth week of CW Academy, and still I feel that I’m just not getting there. I listen to practice files for a minimum of 90 minutes a day, as well as some on the air listening, and while I have improved quite a bit, I’m still hitting the wall at about 15 words per minute. Of course, that’s better than a 50% improvement over where I started, so I am making some progress. All that studying has to pay off in some way!
Over this past weekend we had a homework assignment to get on the air and have a real live Morse conversation. In ham radio parlance, a ‘QSO’, which we tend to pronounce as a word, ‘Q-So’. There’s a history behind this radio shorthand, and if you’re interested in more information, get on Google and search for radio Q signals. But for now, back to the homework.
I fired up the radio Saturday morning, and sent out a signal to see if anyone was out there. Sure enough, right away someone answered. We had a pleasant, if short, conversation, and signed off. Knowing that 2 is better than 1, I found another willing conversationalist and logged another short QSO. Then I decided to try my hand at some CW contesting.
Now, contesting in ham radio generally consists of contacting as many other hams as you can within a specified amount of time. I’m not big into this activity, but others are, and it’s a huge deal in those circles. I’d never tried contesting with Morse code, but why not give it a whirl. You have two choices when participating: Running or Search and Pounce. Running means you find an unused frequency, and start calling out for others to contact you. Search and Pounce means you tune around, listening for Runners. I don’t have a ‘super station’, and so I find that Search and Pounce works best for me.
There were two contests running this past weekend that interested me: The Indiana QSO Party, and the New England QSO Party. This is a bunch of hams in Indiana and New England who try to contact each other as well as hams outside of their geographic area. Indiana started their contest first, so that’s where I started. After two hours, I had logged 20 contacts, and was having some fun. The band conditions were horrific this past weekend, so contacts were limited. With good conditions, or other bands opening, I would have easily been able to double that number.
Next came New England. Being a native of New England, this contest had a personal angle. I managed 24 contacts in about 2 1/2 hours, and managed to log every New England state at least once. Conditions were still bad, but that’s the way it is.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with ham radio contesting, 24 contacts is a very small drop in a very large bucket compared to the stations who win these events. But I’m not out to win, just have fun. Mission accomplished.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the contests. I have participated in contests before, but only on voice modes, and I never found the contest very satisfying. This was oddly satisfying, especially since my signal was answered immediately 95% of the time. This is often not the case for me when using voice modes. I will definitely give it another try.
So it was a fruitful weekend for on the air practice, but I would still like to see an epiphany and break through that 15 WPM barrier in my head. I know I’ll get there, but I want it now! (whining noise)

To be continued…

Learning the Code (again) – Part 2

My CWA class and I are entering our fourth week of study, and it seemed an opportune time for a quick status update.
First, a quick word about our instructor. Glenn, W4YES, is a retired NASA engineer with a passion for morse and a real talent for cheerleading. His patient understanding of our frustrations and stumbling blocks has been remarkable. He is ably assisted by Phil, W2OZB, a retired airline pilot with an enthusiasm that is hardly contained by Skype during our bi-weekly online meetings. Together they’re a great pair to have as a resource, and their constant support keeps us all focused.
The six students in the class hail from a variety of backgrounds and experience, and although we have no youngsters in the group, the rest of us cover quite a few decades. None of us learn at the same rate, and not all of us have unlimited time in which to study. But somehow, through gentle cajoling and exhortation, we all seem to be progressing at roughly the same rate.
Last week I had just about given up on learning faster morse code. I enjoyed early success with diligent study, but I had hit the proverbial wall and was beginning to regress. Others in the class were saying that the 20 WPM practice sessions and short stories were coming easily to their ear, and I was struggling. 20 WPM? I could barely manage 13. Feeling somewhat down, I decided I would go to one more class, the sixth of sixteen, and then write Glenn and tell him that I just didn’t have what it takes.
At the beginning of each class, Glenn gives us all a chance to voice our concerns, brag about our victories, and ask questions. I took this opportunity to tell everyone that I seemed to be stuck in a quagmire, and not progressing. To my surprise almost everyone told me they were in the same place. It is said that misery loves company. I’m not sure that’s true, but I felt much better knowing the others were feeling as I did. I decided to stick it out. What is the worse that could happen? Certainly, the world wouldn’t end, nor would the balance of geopolitical power be affected. Time to move on and leave the self pity behind.
Following the sixth class, I got on the air and listened to some morse code. I was easily following along with a conversation between two hams, and guessed the speed was about 13 to 15 WPM. I fired up a computer decoder, and found it to be 20 WPM. Oh. Maybe I can do this, if I stop worrying so much about measuring myself against others.

To be continued…