Friday, March 24, 2023 was a very special day for Brooks (KO4QCC) and for K4SWL.
I’m so excited to share this with you.
You might recall that, last year, I met up with Brooks at Tuttle Educational State Forest as he performed his very first POTA activation in SSB. He did such an amazing job!
Since I first met Brooks, he’s always had a goal of learning CW and activating parks and summits using Morse Code.
I’ve been in touch with Brooks regularly over the past year and have followed him as he progressed on his CW journey.
Though, like me, he has an active family life, Brooks has found the time to practice CW both through lessons and actual on-the-air contacts. Fortunately, this is all possible because–again, like me–his wife and family are very supportive of his amateur radio adventures!
Early this year, we met on 80 meters and had a good one hour rag chew at about 12 words per minute. I could tell he was ready to do his first POTA activation in CW.
I could tell by how well he was logging as I worked stations at 18WPM that he was ready to perform his first activation, so we made it a goal to do so within the next couple weeks.
Fast-forward to 8:30 AM on March 24 when Brooks and I met at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Coincidentally, this is the same location where I performed my first CW activation!
But before hopping into the field report, let’s back up just a bit…
First CW Activation: Getting there…
From the moment I knew of its existence, becoming a POTA activator using CW has been at the top of my “radio bucket list.”
It seemed like the ultimate challenge and I knew I would never be satisfied until I was able to confidently activate parks using CW. There is also a bit of mystique to CW that other modes lack, making it inherently more interesting to me. In this article, I am going to share the path I took to learn CW and how it culminated in a very successful CW activation.
From “I would like to learn CW” to “I just activated my first park with CW!” took around a year and a half of mostly diligent study and practice. I’ve been asked several times by those interested in CW what my learning process looked like, so I’d like to start there first. Everyone is different and what worked for me may not work for you, but I definitely feel that the approach I used could lead to success for a lot of people.
Before I begin, I’d like to state that regardless of what method you choose, absolutely do not memorize the characters by counting the dits and dahs. CW is an audio language and should be treated as such. When studying, use a fairly fast character speed so that you learn to recognize each one by ear, almost as if it were a tiny little song. The goal is to “hear the letter” rather than “decode the letter by counting the dits and dahs.”
I divided my CW study up into two main phases: first was learning and memorizing the characters, and second was working on increasing my head copy speed.
I had several false starts in the first phase. I tried several different apps on my phone with only marginal success. I checked out various YouTube videos that all promised the sky in regards to learning CW. No real luck there, either. Then I found LCWO.net. The acronym stands for Learn CW Online.
I started with the beginner lessons there and definitely did better than the phone apps and YouTube videos, but I still wasn’t progressing nearly as fast as I would like. After a few weeks or so, I was still struggling with the first handful of characters and getting frustrated fast.
That is when I discovered Morse Machine. It was a little inconspicuous link in between all the rest of the links on the site, but it absolutely took my character learning to the next level. The way Morse Machine works is that it starts with just two characters. K and M, if I’m not mistaken. It will play one at random at your chosen character speed and you have to type it back, then another character plays immediately after, you type that one, rinse, repeat. Within just a few minutes, literally, I was caught up to where I was at on the normal lessons. As time goes on, you add more and more characters to the selection that Morse Machine uses.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not a miracle aid to learning CW. It still took me several months of daily practice to get to the point of having all the characters memorized. Once I had them all in my head, I kept practicing with Morse Machine for a while longer. LCWO also offers various practice modes such as word copy, callsign copy, and so on. I worked on those for a while as well, but my head copy speed was increasing at a frustratingly slow pace.
On to phase two! Enter Kurt Zoglmann and his absolutely incredible YouTube channel. There are videos for every sort of CW practice you could possibly think of. Want four character USA callsigns with triple character spacing at 22 wpm? It’s there. Interested in the top 300 words at 30 wpm but with eight times character spacing? Here ya go. He has over 3,000 videos on his channel, so as you can imagine, there’s plenty to choose from.
The general format of his videos is that you hear something in CW, then it is spoken out loud, then repeated in CW again, then you hear a courtesy tone to indicate that you’re moving to the next item of practice. I used a YouTube converter software to pull the audio tracks from several of his videos and loaded them onto my phone. I spend a large amount of time on the road most days, so I would listen to the various files while driving. My head copy speed started going up rapidly!
I did this for a good while (and still do!) and got to where I could pretty comfortably copy at 15 wpm and at least 50% copy at 20 wpm.
The next step was to get on the air and practice!
Hunting POTA / SOTA activators is a great way to practice CW on the air. The exchanges are generally formulaic, albeit with each individual activator’s personal “touch,” so they’re pretty easy to work with. Once my confidence was up to a reasonable level, I sent Thomas the message we’d both been waiting on for a long time.
“I am ready for my first CW activation.”
I will leave the bulk of the field report to Thomas and to the video itself, but the weather was gorgeous (the bands, not so much) and I wound up making over 40 CW contacts! That activation alone more than doubled my total number of CW contacts!
On The Air
As Brooks mentioned, propagation was better than the previous day and recovering a bit after X-Class flaring. The ionosphere was still unstable, though, so QSB (fading) was certainly in play. The band was also incredibly noisy.
Nonetheless, Brooks logged a total of 42 CW contacts! A most impressive number especially considering this was his first CW activation!
You can follow how it all played out in the activation video below.
Here’s what Brooks’ activation looked like when plotted out on a QSO Map.
Here’s my real-time, real-life video of his entire activation; it’s a long one! As with all of my videos, I don’t edit out any parts of the on-air activation time. In addition, I have monetization turned off on YouTube, although that doesn’t stop them from inserting ads before and after my videos.
I would have never pushed Brooks to put his first activation on video to be shared with the world at large. It’s intimidating enough to start calling CQ during your first CW activation, let alone having the added pressure of a video camera capturing the whole thing for literally thousands of others to see!
Brooks, in fact, insisted that I record this video. He wanted to share this once in a lifetime experience with others in order to encourage them to work toward their first CW activation.
The following weekend, I went out for another activation and added even more to my log.
I’d like to add a few final thoughts as further poking to anyone who may be reading this and be on the fence about learning CW.
One: knowing CW opens up a whole world of awesome, tiny transceivers. Especially great for portable operations!
Two: CW is much more efficient than SSB. My radio is a massive 5 watts, but judging from the pileup I had during my activation, 5 watts is more than enough.
Finally: CW operators absolutely love it when new ops take up the hobby. The vast majority of them will slow down as much as needed in order for you to make the contact. If you watch the video, I fumbled, got numbers backwards, sent approximately a thousand question marks, accidentally bumped my paddles and sent random dits and dahs, so on and so on. Know how many people cared? Zero. None. Nada. Get out there and do it! It’s an absolute blast and insanely satisfying.
Once again, huge thanks to Thomas, K4SWL, for his support and encouragement throughout this process. Also thanks to Kurt Zoglmann for his awesome YouTube channel!
73 and POTA on! -KO4QCC
Thank you for joining Brooks and me on this amazing activation!
And, Brooks, again, thank you for sharing this activation with us. To say I’m proud is an understatement!
We both hope this inspires you to bite the bullet and attempt your first POTA, WWFF, IOTA, or SOTA CW activation!
Of course, I’d also like to send 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 us and, yes, POTA on! 🙂
Cheers & 72,