The Amateur Amateur: CW--Her Plan Versus My Plan

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
November 5, 2002

My wife Nancy and I got our Advanced-class amateur licenses in October of 1997. It had taken a lot of effort, so we didn't immediately think about upgrading to Amateur Extra. The Advanced class exam was too fresh in our minds. It would take a while before we stopped having nightmares about resonance equations and Colpitts diagrams.

But human beings are nothing, if not resilient. Once our headaches from studying for the Advanced class exam had diminished, we looked toward the future. Should we try for Extra class? Sure, why not! It was just one more exam, shorter than the one we had just taken, and, oh yes, the 20 WPM Morse code test.


Well, we had successfully passed the 13 WPM examination. Neither of us had particularly fond memories of that exam, but we had made it over that hurdle. So we began to practice for the next level.

We found that we were rusty. Very rusty. We hadn't forgotten Morse code per se, but our copying speed was way down. Since we couldn't even copy at 13 WPM anymore, 20 WPM appeared very far away indeed. Nancy got fed up with her lack of progress and announced that she would wait.

"Wait for what?" I asked.

"Wait for the rules to change," she retorted.

"Ha ha!" I said, and returned to my practice sessions.

When studying for the 13-WPM test, I had used computer-generated messages and Nancy had used tutor boxes. Not surprisingly, I returned to the computer-generated messages. I crept back up to my former proficiency level and even got up to about 15 WPM. But it was taking too long. Without Nancy to pace and challenge me, I had many lapses and had to start over again. Months and years went by, and I made little progress.

I felt that I needed to try something different. I needed contact with real people, not just computer-generated QSOs. By this time I had set up a shack in my basement, complete with an HF transceiver. But I hadn't used it much and never on CW. I called Chris, my brother and "Elmer" and asked if he'd help me to develop some Morse code proficiency. Yes, he would. (Elmers never say no.) We set up a contact schedule.

Imabic paddles

"I started with the iambic paddles. I was anxious, but ready."

It was now September of 1999 and time for my first real, live CW contact. I had both a straight key and iambic paddles available. I figured the straight key might be a little easier to operate initially, but I eventually wanted to use just the iambic paddles, so I decided not to confuse my fingers by learning one and then switching to the other. I started with the iambic paddles. I was anxious, but ready.

What I had completely forgotten was that Chris and I had a great deal of difficulty making contact on the HF bands. I live in St. Louis and he lives in Atlanta--some 700 some-odd miles away. That was way too far for groundwave propagation and way too near for skywave propagation (and, we both had vertical antennas). Just as with our SSB attempts, our initial try at CW seemed to be a failure. I couldn't hear a thing!

But wait! There was just a faint sound. Could it be? I slapped on my headphones and turned up the volume. The static was overwhelming but, I could just make out a barely audible Morse code signal, "KBOQGE de KIKC what..." and no more.

I tried sending a reply. Instead of hearing Chris again, I got a booming message telling me I was interfering with someone else's transmission and to please stand by. Chris called me by telephone (our favorite mode) and suggested trying another frequency. We did, and this time we did hear each other, but never more than three or four letters at a time. Clearly I was not going to develop any Morse proficiency under these conditions.

Straigh Morse key

This straight key belonged to Nancy's grandfather, who was a railroad telegrapher. It still works fine with modern ham gear.

I figured I'd have better luck if I tried practicing with someone local. Steve, KA2AYR, lived in the adjacent county and was willing to set aside some time to work with me. Despite our best efforts, though, our contacts were always marginal. Sometimes the propagation was poor. Sometimes there was interference. It just never worked out.

Not long after my attempts with Steve, I heard that the St Charles Amateur Radio Club was going to hold weekly slow-speed CW nets. Oh boy! Exactly what I needed. And indeed, the first net came in crystal clear on my HF radio. I didn't attempt to transmit that first night, preferring instead to just listen and get a feel for the net.

The next week, I checked in to the net. Or tried to. I could hear net control station (NCS) and everyone else clearly, but, as usual, no one could hear me. I kept trying, though. I don't know if it was the trickster sky-god Iono or if I just got lucky, but suddenly the NCS heard me and replied. Strangely, the pitch of his CW signal was very low, as if I were not on the correct frequency. I adjusted my frequency down accordingly. I sent a message and received a reply, but the NCS's pitch sounded as though he'd changed to a lower frequency. I adjusted my radio again. This went on and on until the end of the net.

I later spoke to Bill, NCS, in voice mode. He said, "Yeah, I heard you, but your tone kept getting lower and lower. I kept having to adjust my frequency down, so that I could hear you."

We never did figure out that one.

The weekly CW net was nice, but for one reason or another, I found myself unable to make it. Moreover, my sending skills did not seem to be improving. All of the people I contacted were very cordial on the air, but I suspect that they all believed that I was operating QLF (keying with my left foot).

Anyway, my comprehension speed was not getting any better. I was no closer to my Extra ticket than when I had started. Lots of pain, no gain.

Iambic paddles

Iambic paddles were great at compounding any mistakes I made.

And then, from out of nowhere, came Amateur Radio License Restructuring. It was no longer necessary to take a 20 WPM Morse code test to get an Extra license! I had mixed feelings about it, but, basically, I was relieved.

I asked Nancy how she felt. She said that it all went according to her plan.

"What plan?" I asked.

"My plan back in 1997 to wait for the rules to change," she answered.

"What kind of plan was that?" I said.

"Well, it worked, didn't it?" she replied.

Editor's note: RRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via email.

© 2002 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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