Hike & Talk Session: Conquering the CW Doldrums

A couple years ago, I started making Hike & Talk video sessions covering in-depth topics that are challenging to answer via email or even long-format blog posts.

When I receive a question from a reader and think to myself, “I’d rather answer that in-person than write a reply,” I make a note to do a Hike & Talk session.

These sessions are not scripted, outlined, or formatted in any way shape or form. When I make a Hike and Talk video, I imagine that I’m chatting away with you informally as you join me on a hike or walk.

All this to say that these long-format videos aren’t for everyone, so if it doesn’t sound like your cuppa’ tea, it’s okay to skip it! I promise, I won’t be offended.

Conquering the CW Doldrums

On January 11, 2023, I was driving back from Raleigh and decided that a quick POTA break was in order. That morning, I read an email from a reader and it was on my mind as I drove to Tuttle Educational State Forest. It was a long email, but here are the relevant bits:

Hi Thomas […]I’ve been studying CW on my own for about four months now. I know you advise joining a group like the Long Island CW Club to learn CW but my work schedule simply doesn’t allow for this. I travel frequently and have team members across the globe so my schedule is a mess. I have so little free time.

[…]I’ve been using various CW apps, CW recordings like W1AW and your videos to practice CW. I can’t stress how much your videos have encouraged me along the way because you make this all seem so achievable. I download your videos from Patreon and listen to them when driving, flying, during layovers, and in the evenings in my hotel room. Many times I just listen to your video audio as I would a podcast.

I am not at a point where I can understand all of the contacts you receive, but I do get maybe 1 out of 3. It’s a real thrill to know I decoded a callsign on my own. I see a day when I will do CW activations.

[…]I’m writing though because I feel like I’ve reached a barrier. I know all of my characters and numbers and I continue to do regular CW practice, but I feel like I’m not learning. Like my brain has stopped soaking up the code. It’s discouraging. Do you have any advice for getting through this?

I’ve received similar emails and comments in the past which is proof that you’re not alone if you can relate to this reader.

I’ve certainly been there, too!

Hike & Talk

In this video I will talk about the CW Doldrums, how I related to them, and how I work through them myself.

I include (against my better judgement!) a very long side story about my path to learning French. It relates, but perhaps not how you might think.

Instead of editing my videos, I always try to include chapter markings in the YouTube timeline so you can skip over any sections that aren’t of interest to you.

You’re going to need a few cups of coffee or tea for this one. You’ve been warned!

Click here to view on YouTube.

Thank you

Thank you for joining me on this Hike & Talk session!

If you’re experiencing or have experienced the CW Doldrums yourself, let us know how you work through them in the comments section.

The important part is to know that you’re not alone and that, in fact, the Doldrums are truly a healthy sign that you’re learning CW and your brain is doing it’s thing!

As always, a special thanks to those of you who have been supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement as my content will always be free, I really appreciate the support.

Thanks for spending part of your day with me on the trail!

Cheers & 72,

Thomas (K4SWL)

8 thoughts on “Hike & Talk Session: Conquering the CW Doldrums”

  1. Great video, Thomas. I hope it’s an inspiration for many! I remember those days when I got my Novice (1974) and the sweaty palms I had when I went to my Elmer’s shack (W2DEE- his shack looked like a Norman Rockwell painting!) to take my 5 wpm CW test. I passed it without a problem. I was still nervous about getting on the air for all of the reasons of which you spoke. But, not wanting to lose my new found slow speed skill, I picked up a used Johnson Viking Adventurer (rock bound with grid block keying- ouch!)and a Lafayette HA 800B receiver, I took the plunge and got on the air. Within a month I was ready to take the 13wpm General test- once comfortable with the code it just took off. So, with you, I encourage those who watch you to “take the plunge” and go for it! (Maybe it’s a “Lutheran thing?” Hi hi

    John, WI2C

    1. Ha ha! That’s a great story, John!
      Maybe it’s a “Lutheran thing?”–having grown up a Lutheran I can relate! 🙂

  2. Thomas,
    Wow, you are so open and generous in sharing your life with us! I greatly appreciate it. I’ve been watching all your videos for many months now and my CW speed has definitely improved a lot.
    Thanks soooo much!!
    73, Ron

  3. The biggest obstacle for CW strikers today is that most of them ragchew either not much or not at all. They get into CW to contest, and that’s what they’re fixated on. Contesting — including POTA — will not teach you CW. (I’m not suggesting the great new ops we have today are lazy, just too concentrated on one thing to see the big picture)

    Many are also terrified of ragchewing, like it’s somehow a high art that you only get to after many years. As an old Novice will tell you, that’s the opposite of the truth: it’s where you start, and work up from there.

    I’ve worked with many brand-new fists over the last several years — they’re among my favourite contacts, right up there with DX — and am impressed with the technical skills they get in these training programmes we have now. They learn code much better and much faster than we did in the Academy of Ragchew back in the day. The flip side is they get virtually no operational training (prosigns, exchange protocol, ham slang, etc) and they’re afraid of us feral old fists who came up on the backstreets. Of course, when I started I had no choice but to hit that on-ramp, so though I was also afraid, it never occurred to me not to do it. We all did.

    So what’s happened is, the CW bands are dead now except for contests and XOTAs. I’ll CQ for an hour, get RBN’d all over the continent and copy myself 599 on distant SDRs, without a single call. The bands are silent, or very nearly, except for people quasi-contesting (XOTA, SKCC…)

    So if we want the new keys to have the confidence and skill we developed, we have to make CW a communication method again, not just a way to rack up points in brief, formulaic bagging exchanges. It’s just a shame we’ve got so many code-proficient newcomers today, and no next level from them to graduate to.

    So that’s my recommendation: get out there and CQ. All of us. Just CQ. Not CQ Something. Just, “I’ll talk to anyone, for any time.” If the band is “dead”, that’s perfect. Call and call. Forget calling for a “reason”. Call to talk. It’s the only way to gain skill and confidence — and have any fun with it, now I think of it.

    So I’m out there calling! And listening! And though I’m all-QRP, I’m answering too! Put on your ears! Do that ham thing!

    That’s my solution to the problems newcomers, and our whole mode, are having now.

    Thanks for another great post, Thomas!

    1. I always try to do the odd random ragchew at the QTH. At least, I’ll answer a CQ in the wild and if the person on the other end wants to ragchew, I’m always good for that.

      That said, I’ll be the first to admit that my ragchewing speed is much slower than my contesting speed. It all has to do with the word buffer in my brain and very little with CW interpretation. The letters flow, the words accumulate and then I forge them. 🙂 I still practice though and as with all things, it helps.

  4. Hi Thomas,

    I always appreciate your Hike and Talk videos. You really need to be less self-deprecating about your work. It is genuine, meaningful, and well received.

    I particularly appreciate the reflections on your CW journey. I’m right there with you on improvement and comfort level activating POTA and some contesting. I am also with you on my weakness at rag chewing. It is not that I don’t try, it is that I don’t do it often enough. Rob’s observations above are a spot-on description of my need, as are his recommendations.

    I can say that personally I get my motivation from looking back at how much my CW skills have improved compared to where I was 2, 6, or 12 months ago. Discouragement about how far I still have to go almost disappears in the light of amazement at how far I have come. Oh, and a lot of my improvement has come from daily on-air immersion in the code…

    Best 73 de Brian – K3ES

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