Many thanks to Terry (N7TB) who shares the following article:
My CW Journey
by Terry (N7TB)
For many U.S. hams who were licensed before 2007, we had to learn CW at 5 wpm as a Novice or Tech, 13 wpm for a General license and 20 wpm for Extra. Many learned CW at a young age and have used CW since then. It and ham radio are synonymous for them. For many of them, that is the only mode they have used for years.
For me, my experience is quite different.
In 1982 I decided to get my ham license. I bought a Kenwood TS-520S, DG-5 digital display, a 45 ft tower, and a large Cushcraft ATB-34 beam even before I had my novice license: all for $350, a bargain even then (my wife wasn’t convinced). I still had the beam and tower until 7 years ago. In 1982 I had all the gear to work DX using SSB and it seemed to me to be the way to do it. So as a result, I stayed with SSB for decades. Right after I got my license, several ham friends urged me to continue using CW and even invited me to join their weekly CW group to gain confidence and skill. I had absolutely no interest. Several kept at me for years!
I don’t know what causes the “spark” that happens for a person to not only want to learn, or relearn CW as I did, but to also do everything necessary to become proficient. That happened to me when I was 69 years old.
I had tired of SSB and was getting bored with ham radio. I was looking for a new challenge. I decided to see if I could relearn the CW that I had largely forgotten 35 years before. The same friends who urged me to join their group so long ago, welcomed me. Over the first few years I joined them, my confidence and speed increased. Unlike the first time I learned CW, they urged me to not write down anything but to listen to the sound and translate the letters in my head. It was slower than writing it down at first, but it paid dividends later. They all were patient and slowed down for me and increased speed as my skills improved. I still join them every week. They are some of my best friends. We are spread out in WA and OR. On Wednesday mornings we have a QRPP net where we operate 1 watt CW and most of the time we can all hear each other. We never go over 5 watts.
Because I learned CW late in life, I have an appreciation and joy of CW that is hard to describe. It is the greatest joy in ham radio I have ever experienced.
This week, I activated Willamette Mission State Park in Oregon with a wire in a tree and 5 watts from my KX2. I worked 44 contacts, most East of the Mississippi. There are few things that give me as much joy as copying and sending CW. It represents 99.9 percent of all my ham contacts for the last 6 years.
When that day came almost 3 years ago, when I had finished a CW ragchew and was thinking about what was discussed and realized that I never said anything verbally, that my brain had effortlessly translated dit and dah sounds into language and could not tell the difference between speech and CW, I knew I had finally reached my goal of communicating in CW as effortlessly as talking. I will never forget that moment! I was 72 years old. Three years of almost daily work for at least an hour on CW finally got me there. I think it takes longer the older one is when they start.
I guess I could say that CW has become my passion. I don’t know if I would have felt the same way if I had learned it as young man as many hams did in the day. Because I hated CW for so many years and had such frustrations with it, to find myself loving the mode now is an amazing thing.
In a few weeks, I will get the DXCC wallpaper for over 100 CW DX contacts. That, in itself, is almost surreal to me given my history of avoiding CW for so many years. I actually wasn’t working toward it, it just happened because of the ease of confirming contacts through LOTW. My logging software does it for me automatically. Nonetheless, I will take great pride in it because of how much effort it took to become proficient in CW. If someone had told me in 1985 that I would one day achieve DXCC in CW mode, I would have said they were crazy!
I am mentoring several people now as they learn CW. It is exciting to see them progress. It is fun to share in their successes and encourage them as they deal with some of the same things I dealt with.
The thing that has always amazed me and something that I have tried to communicate to those I am working with is that there comes a magical moment when the difficulty of learning CW melts away and all of a sudden you can copy 25-30+ wpm with little to no more effort. Many of you can relate to what I am saying. It’s like a switch is flipped and you will never not be able to effortlessly communicate in CW again.
I will always be grateful to those who helped me on those many weekly hour-long CW chats. That was the key that opened a world that I never knew existed and one in which I will treasure for the rest of my life.
I share this story with you because I know there are others who read Thomas’s blog, striving to become proficient in CW and wonder if they will ever “get it.” You will if you keep at it, and when that magic moment arrives for you when CW becomes effortless, you will have the satisfaction of doing something that so few hams are willing to do. It is worth all the work you put into it! I wish you the greatest success in achieving CW proficiency!
Very 72 and 73,
26 thoughts on “From reluctance to devotion: Terry’s journey into the rewarding world of CW”
Terry, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us. I love how you turned a mode that you dreaded into one you’re absolutely passionate about today! Simply amazing. Like you, I find CW such a magical mode–it puts my brain into a relaxed state that’s so hard to describe. I love it.
Thank you again for sharing!
Thanks for summing up my thoughts, Terry. My CW journey started in 1990 but stalled once I got that mic in my hand. I started over in late 2020 and never looked back.
You’re right about the pencil. Drop it. Writing the translated code is detrimental to breaking down barriers. One has to reach the point where the rhythm of code represents the characters with no translation. Then the rhythm of words starts to emerge. Then context and familiarity start to fill in the gaps and the meaning pops out of the rhythm. It truly is a magical thing when CW starts to become second nature.
If you’re a CW beginner, my advice is this – immersion and familiarity are your friends. Get on the air every day. Within a couple of years (maybe sooner) your recognition of the rhythm of CW starts to lock in, unleashing higher speeds and longer rag chews, as opposed to boilerplate exchanges. Turn off the gadgets and training aids and start having conversations.
Thanks for sharing this, as someone who is currently just starting out learning CW for the very first time, this is encouraging to know that the difficulty in pushing forward and continuing on actually pays dividends in the end. I look forward to the day it all clicks for me as well in the future, but until then I will keep practicing and pushing myself.
Thanks for sharing
Thank you Terry for the encouragement!
Can you do a ‘Vulcan Mind-meld’ on me? (If it were only that simple.)
I too love CW already. But my speed is just 15wpm, and at that, my copy is very shaky…
My thoughts are to just focus on listening in on various nets, and working strickly on my copy. 30wpm is my goal. Using my Morse software to focus on the sound of the character, and forgetting the dits and daws…. And not writing it down, just mental note taking… ‘Hands Free’.
I’m encouraged, I know I can do it.
Thanks again Terry! 72! de W7UDT (dit dit)
I never tire of reading articles like this. Thank you!
I was resistant to ham radio to begin with. Got into it because I was living in an extremely primitive environment and needed the emergency communication capability. My younger brother was a ham and kept encouraging me with statements like, “Well, if you had 40 meters, you’d have been able to get help.”
Took me 1 1/2 years to get my Novice and another 1 1/2 to get a rig and get on the air. I had no particular interest in CW but struggled with it and recognized that I needed to get to General (13 wpm) to get HF privileges on 40 meters. When I got my rig I got on the air and decided to do a CW QSO a day, minimum, until I got my General. In three months I breezed through the General and, long before that I lost any interest in any other mode than CW.
After 10 years on the air I went inactive for 20 years and recently got back into ham radio. It was recommended to me as a therapy for some cognitive issues I’ve been having. I got back on and could complete a slow speed QSO first try but I was mixing up 5s, Hs and S’. Head copy was totally gone. I had been head copying and doing a lot of mobile CW in the 90s.
The good thing is that ANY CW is enjoyable and therapeutic and I’m in no hurry. Head copy is indeed coming back, albeit slowly. Still not tempted to use the mike….
72 es 73,
Great story and I too can relate to it. Many of the hams in the local club are interested in learning CW and true, you can “learn” the characters. But when I was licensed in the 1970s as. a novice, CW was all I had and I was happy for it. Many many QSOs with a straight key and 5 wpm. I think one of the problems today is that people are afraid to get on the air and just try a QSO. I am guilty of it too engaging in the wham bam contest or pota exchange. And I agree with you-anything worth doing takes practice and devotion. For me, I practice with “morserunner” or “qrq” to help with headcopy. I practice at unrealistically high rates (40-45 wpm) but when I slow down to 20 it seems easy.
Thank you for your encouraging and inspiring words. I am one that learned CW back when….. and eventually was able to get to the 20 wpm for the Extra. Then I backed down and now only do around 15 wpm ish. However, I still have trouble head copying, and if I am getting into a longer QSO, at home, I pull out the pen and paper or miss whatever is being said or asked. I’ve never acquired the proficiency for head copying. During POTA and SOTA and some quick exchanges in the shack, I am ok, as the exchange is quite simple. However, get me in a longer QSO, my head goes into overwhelmed mode and I miss out. So maybe it is time to learn!! Thank you.
Ditto – sounds exactly like myself with the difference being I just turned 80. Cw doesn’t get any easier and have a hard time copying as I once did in 1980.
Terry, I appreciate your article. Coincidently, I am 69 years old and have decided to learn CW and pursue QRP. I enjoy following Thomas’ adventures and am learning Morse code. Knowing you got there is encouraging and has spurred me on. Thank you for sharing your journey. Now I know how to measure success!
Great article. I got my technician license in the mid 80s and after a quick taste of HF on a little portion of the 10 meter band I had to move up to my general. Then a short while later and after studying the printed guide books of the era I took my general test at a local library and passed on the first try although I think my 13wpm copy was really on the fringe of being passable though. I was quite nervous.
I then picked up a used Kenwood Ts520 when in college for around $400. It was a lot of cash at the time but it was a great rig. Came with the matching speaker and mic although I don’t think I really ever used the mic. I plugged in a keyer, got a Bencher paddle and jumped on the air. And then life took over.
Marriage, jobs, kids, and ham radio fell to the back burner. I’d occasionally get the urge, put a mobile 2meter rig in the car and occasionally jump on the air but it never took over. The Ts520 was tucked away somewhere.
I was never very good at CW but loved the quiet nature of it and how in the late night hours I could tap out a conversation with usually very kind folks all over the world. It is just such a peaceful way to communicate. Turn the lights down low and sometimes close your eyes and just have a little chat.
And…jump to now. My “kids” are grown and out (well, mostly; my son is but my daughter is halfway through college living on a campus far away). There is a little more time now and I’ve been pulled back into the cw world. Can’t get enough of it. In recent months I’ve picked up some small qrp rigs and have had fun reconnecting with it after stringing up some dipoles in the back yard.
The Ts520 is long gone but I have a little G90 on the way (it actually is supposed to arrive today!) to scratch the itch a little better than some of my really tiny and super low power QRPP rigs.
My Dad, a silent key, told me many decades ago that one thing about ham radio is that it often tends to come back around as you age. It certainly is in my case.
I have noticed that the vast majority of very kind folks I have qsos with are certainly aging though. I’d say that probably 75% or more that I’ve chatted with were born in the 1940s. Great kind guys though. All of them, and many with incredibly tuned fists and ears. (I’m convinced cw is excellent for maintaining good cognitive abilities) I am encouraged that it seems like there is an influx of new blood. I hope that continues to carry on this wonderful mode of communication.
Terry, yet another kudo and from a neighbor! Keizerite here. Please.. more info on the QRP sched net. K7AOZ.
I can attest to Terry’s devotion to CW. I had the privilege of Terry being my Elmer on my first POTA activation last week. His enthusiasm is contagious.
Although I copied CW in the Navy many moons ago, I had never actually sent CW. So, I am blessed to have meet Terry in our club and for his generosity with his time. There is no stopping me now.
I cannot end this without recognizing Thomas and his YouTube channel and learning from his journey as well.
Regardless of when you learned CW, or at what speed to pass your license, CW copied in your head is a terrific way to keep the “gray matter” from turning into useless white matter!
Excellent article for those of us still aspiring to achieve a modicum of CW proficiency. Even though I would like there to be a shortcut, I know that only diligent practice will yield results. Thanks Terry for sharing this, and to Thomas (especially for your post about becoming fluent in French). This is the kind of encouragement I need.
Thanks for sharing this great experience. Except for the 3 year age difference, tower and Kenwood rig, this journey is similar to mine.
I relicensed as a Novice in 1983 & upgrading to General, I basically abandoned Morse Code. I upgraded to Advanced class in 1991 & in so doing I also I passed the Extra code exam but failed the written test. Broadcasting career put a hold on me obtaining my Extra license.
When I retired in 2016, I jumped head first into ham radio activities. RTTY, PSK31, SSTV, FT8, SSB, Satellites, VHF packet, Winlink but never gave Morse Code a second thought.
In January 2021, several ham friends began their annual onslaught of sending emails, text messages and voice communications of shaming me into upgrading to Extra class. With the Pandemic raging worldwide it was no better time than the present to study to upgrade which ironically I accomplished on my 70th birthday in March 2021.
In June 2021 I stumbled upon the YouTube account of Thomas, K4SWL and thus was introduced to Parks on the Air. Many years ago, I had used my Amateur Radio equipment as part of my hiking, camping and bicycle touring activities long before the Parks on the Air organization was formed. I was enthralled to learn from Thomas about POTA and consequently brought me back to my Novice roots, CW.
Like Terry, SSB, and other digital modes became boring. I was looking for a new challenge. Portable and POTA activities provided an avenue for my renewed interest in Morse Code.
I purchased a 3D printed paddle and found I could only send proficiently at about 8 WPM. At one time, I could send and copy up to 28 WPM in my head. Previously I had hit those plateaus where I got stuck at a particular speed. Lo and behold it happened again but this time things just CLICKED quickly.
I was not going to let “THE CODE” beat me.
I felt sorry for those POTA hunters who braved my poor sending but they kindly stuck with me through all of my mistakes. The key for me was to not quit. Now after almost 2 years of exclusive CW use, I’m at about 25 WPM head copying.
Now more than 99% of my QSOs are Morse Code in nature. It has been an incredible fun journey and experience. So much so, I learned to use other keying devices, Bug, Cootie/Side Sweeper keys, Iambic paddles and of course straight keys. Speaking of straight keys, I was able to miraculously able to find the straight key I learned Morse Code with from 1961 and have used it often during this new path of my Amateur Radio journey.
Great memories and new memories to be made.
Likewise, I feel guilty sometimes for making such a mess of my CW exchanges. Thanks to anyone and everyone that answers my meager qrp signal and endures my mistakes.
Before repeaters the process for getting into Ham Radio was get the Novice so you could get on and get your code speed up to 13wpm so you could upgrade to General. The goal was to get on HF. The Novice good for one year, non-renewable. General had all privileges. There was the Extra, but then got you nothing more. Repeaters and Incentive licensing changed all that. So did all the new modes. Ham Radio licensing has changed over the years, but the joy of it is the same, joy of playing with radio. 73, ron, n9ee
Ron, your repeater was the path that led to my getting licensed. We had an eyeball meeting at the Hooters way back when. Thanks for the mentoring that you provided both on and off the air.
Many thanks, Terry, very encouraging. I am still waiting for the switch to flip, but my journey has just started about 18 months ago. Your story is the best example that it is worth the effort and possible to achieve head copy even later in life. Thank you so much.
That’s a great story. I fell in love with CW early in my ham career, back in 1956. I have tried SSB and even thought about digital but I have always stayed with CW, the corner stone of ham radio. Today at almost 83 I am %100 CW, I activate and chase entirely on CW. I truly love CW. It has taken good care of me through out my years both in the Army as a radio operator in the Long Range Recon Patrol and later through out my life.
Really great inspirational piece. Thanks for sharing !
You post encourages me further to try a pota cw activation. My story is similar to yours regarding your path to learning cw. I have gained much confidence by watching the videos presented by Thomas and from stories like yours here on qrper.com
This is such a great website. Thanks to Thomas K4SWL.
Wow guys, I had no idea my article would be so well read and encouraging to so many. Thank you! It is also great to hear the journeys of those who have mastered CW. I wish there was a quick way to learn, but there isn’t. I will say that joinging the Long Island CW Club or taking a CW Academy classes from CWOps will really help you get over the hump.
I taught a basic class in the CW Academy about 3 years ago, and had 5 students. Only 1 was willing to do the work necessary to progress. I have found that those of you who are still at it and persevering through the hurdles are not only going to get there, but are among the very few who start and continue to proficiency. So many give up, and some when they are so close to “getting over the hump,”.
Robert, thank for you kind words. It has been a pleasure to get to know you, and work with you as you get your feet wet with POTA! You are one of the few who can copy well, but are working on sending!
Thanks again to all who commented. I am really overwhelmed.
Thank you Terry!
It is amazing!
I also had a good antenna from the very beginning and there were no problems with DX in SSB. But when I became limited by bad antennas and low power, I was forced to look for ways to catch DX and the obvious way out was to learn the telegraph. It’s the only mode I’ve used since then. Although I am far from fluent CW for rag chewing, as English is not my native language, 90% of the time it is enough to know Q-codes and abbreviations for making ordinary QSO.
Great story! It’s my dream to learn CW but I admit to being a little defeatist. I guess it’s a case of wanting it so much but unwilling in the end, to devote the necessary time to learn. Knowing that it took Terry three years adds to my apprehension.
Maybe when I retire 🙂
73, Tom, M7MCQ.
Don’t despair. I started at 69. It took 3 years to go from about 8 wpm to 30+ wpm. Most cw QSO’s I do are 19-21 wpm. I rarely operate at higher speeds and that is possible if the other person has a great fist. You don’t need 3 yrs or 30 wpm. I was at about 18 wpm in a year ir so.
The biggest stumbling block is writing or typing while listening. It might seem like you progress faster but that added step in the mind to read it caps your speed. Learn by sound recognition.