Category Archives: Skills

Learning Morse Code When Work Life Limits Practice Time and Classes?

After posting my 2024 Radio Goals post, Mark left the following comment:

My main goal would be to learn CW this year.

[…]My work schedule doesn’t allow me to participate in any kind of CW classes since I’m in bed by the time they start. Trying to listen to anything while I’m working (I drive a delivery truck) is too tough to concentrate on the task at hand. So I feel I’m at an impasse. Happy New Year QRPers.

Mark, it definitely sounds like you need CW training in some sort of asynchronous format like audio or video recordings that will allow you to practice during lunch breaks and any short openings you might have in the day.

I started my CW journey so long ago, that I don’t know what some of the current options are for pre-recorded CW training that follows the Farnworth method. I learned CW via Gordon West’s Novice CW Training tapes which were really designed to help you pass the Novice test, not necessarily for CW proficiency.

Using the Farnsworth method, characters are sent to you at, say 21 words per minute or so, while extra spacing is added between characters and words to slow the transmission down as you start your CW journey. This teaches you to learn each character at your target rate from the very beginning. As you become more proficient, the spacing between characters is simply shortened. No question, it’s the best way to avoid the “counting dits and dashes” issue that causes many beginners to stumble.

Any advice for Mark?

I’m sure there are some phone/tablet apps, audio programs, and YouTube channels out there that will allow you to study at your own pace. I agree that it sounds like your work schedule would make real-time online courses challenging.

Readers, please comment with links to any resources that might help Mark and others in his shoes.

Consistency and habit stacking…

My own two cents here: Mark, I would worry less about how long you’re practicing CW each day and focus on consistency. Even if it’s just 10-15 minutes per day (most of us can carve that out), a steady and reliable pace will have a most positive impact on your CW journey.

Also, I find “habit stacking” to be a powerful tool–I’ll explain, but click here for a proper, thorough explanation.

Basically, habit stacking works by adding on a new habit to one you already do.

A real-life example: I wanted to implement regular light stretching into my daily routine, but I was finding it difficult to remember. Out of entire week, I might remember to stretch two or three times.

Then a friend told me about habit stacking where you add the new habit to one you’re already doing.

One thing I do each morning without fail is brew my first cup of coffee. From day one, I would grind my beans, start the coffee maker, and while the coffee was brewing, I’d spend a couple of minutes doing stretches and squats.

It was so simple implementing this new routine and I’ve never once forgotten to do my morning stretches.

In your shoes, I’d find a habit you’re already doing where you typically have a moment of peace: making your coffee, taking off your shoes after work, brushing your teeth…whatever you do daily and works for you. Then add on 10-15 minutes of code practice.

Even if you only added 10 minutes of code practice per day, by the end of the year, you’d have accumulated a total of 61 hours!

I feel like prerecorded code practice or a good CW app might help. Also, you might try a device like the Morse Tutor or Morserino. (I’ve been tempted to buy both of these to test myself!)

Again, my hope is that our community here will have some advice based on recent experience to help you! Please comment!

Keying In The Rain: One rather soggy but incredibly fun POTA activation!

I’m lucky enough to live in a part of the world where–by and large–the weather is pretty darn nice.

In fact, I recently received a comment from a reader who jokingly said that I should work for the tourism board of western North Carolina because the weather always seems so pleasant in my POTA/SOTA videos.

It’s true: most of the time I hit the field to play radio, the weather is very pleasant.

That said, you see more of these “fair weather” activations because I tend not to make videos of ones in poor conditions mainly because I don’t like managing the camera in high winds, heavy rains, or even super cold conditions–especially when I want to get in and out of the field quickly. The camera tends slows everything down.

On Friday, December 1, 2023, though, I decided to do a park activation in the rain and make a video! Here’s my field report:

Pisgah National Forest (K-4510)

That Friday morning, I dropped my daughters off at classes, then made my way to the Mills River library to put the finishing touches on a field report and publish it. It was rainy and I wasn’t complaining; it had been a very dry fall in WNC up to that point.

After I published my field report and attempted to catch up on the email backlog a bit, I hopped in the car and headed to the Sycamore Flats picnic area in Pisgah National Forest (K-4510) and Pisgah Game Lands (K-6937).

That day, knowing it would be soggy, I packed my Discovery TX-500 which is pretty much rain-proof. By this, I mean that it’s designed to cope with rain, but it’s not designed to be completely submerged in water.

Truth be told, I had no intention of making an activation video. Once I arrived on site, though, I thought, “Why the heck not?” After all, other than being rainy and chilly, conditions were pretty pleasant. That and my OSMO action camera is completely waterproof.

I grabbed the camera and started filming the activation while closing up the car.

Setting Up

When playing POTA in the rain, I tend to select picnic tables or sites that are under the canopy of trees if at all possible. Trees not only provide antenna supports, but they also help divert a bit of the rain.

I found an ideal site under the canopy of a few hemlocks.

I deployed my PackTenna end-fed half-wave (EFHW) oriented (nearly) vertically and with the feed point close to the tree trunk so that it would be better protected from the rain. I wasn’t worried about the antenna getting wet, but I also didn’t want the toroid and windings to get completely soaked either. It’s never a bad idea to use what bit of natural protection the trees can offer.

As you can see in the photo above, I had my TX-500 completely exposed, but the battery, in-line fuse, and (to some extent) the speaker mic were all protected in the TX-500’s Telesin Case.

As always, I used my Rite In The Rain notepad which is a champ at handling wet conditions. Continue reading Keying In The Rain: One rather soggy but incredibly fun POTA activation!

Beyond the Basics with CW Innovations

Many thanks to Brain (K3ES) who shares the following guest post:


CW POTA activations can be enjoyable, and theraputic.  This photo shows the me activating from a picnic shelter on a beautiful spring day.

Learning CW:  Beyond the Basics

by Brian (K3ES)

I just finished my last class ever for learning Morse Code.  It was a lot of work, but it really improved my ability to communicate using the CW operating mode.  More importantly, this class taught me how to actually learn CW, by diagnosing the problems and barriers that inhibit improvement.  Then it gave me tools I can use to overcome those problems and barriers at any stage of my CW journey.  You see, I am not yet where I want to be, but I have made a giant leap forward, and I now know what I have to do to keep improving.

I guess it might help to tell you a bit about myself as a radio amateur, about the start of my CW journey, and about what motivates me to improve.

I got licensed in 2020, when I was working from home, and spending way too much time locked away from the rest of the world.  I saw a video about amateur radio, and thought it might provide an opportunity for increased personal contact despite social distancing.  I studied during my plentiful spare time, and passed the Technician, General and Amateur Extra license examinations in short order.  Once I was licensed, Elmers at Skyview Radio Society near Pittsburgh, PA helped me to learn and explore the hobby, encouraging me to be radio-active.

I found a compelling niche hunting for Parks on the Air (POTA) activators, and I started hearing about all the benefits that CW brought for activating parks:  tiny radios, efficient use of power, and automatic spotting via the reverse beacon network.  That motivated me to work on learning Morse Code.

A full CW station packed for a hike weighs just a few pounds.  This kit, based around an Elecraft KX2, fits in a small shoulder bag, includes all needed components and some spares, along with creature comforts for the activator.

I started my CW journey using a variety of apps and online tools.  I practiced with club members.  Thomas Witherspoon’s YouTube channel became a staple in my CW diet.  Every character copied was a victory.  All of this helped my ability and confidence.

I completed my first CW-only POTA activation in July of 2021, and have not looked back.  But, during one of my early park activations, I had a defining experience.  I could copy callsigns and standard exchanges with ease, but something off script would throw me off balance.

When a hunter finished his exchange and sent something followed by a question mark, I was lost.  We worked through it, and after several slow repeats, I understood that he had sent “COUNTY?”.  He wanted to know what county I was operating from.  I easily sent him the name of my county, but the experience left me certain that I needed to improve my copy skills.

It doesn’t get much better than this.  Operating CW under my favorite tree duing an activation of K-1345, Cook Forest State Park, in northwest Pennsylvania.

That certainty started me on a new phase of the journey, one involving formal training classes.  I took a few classes, and each class helped – I could look back and see the progress.  But none of them left me ready for CW communication beyond predictable exchanges.  I knew there had to be an approach to me get there, and there had to be something more efficient than working endlessly to copy code bulletins or on-air QSOs between other operators.

CW Innovations provided just that method with their Comprehensive Instant Character Recognition (CICR) Course.  CICR is not just a class, but a structured process for improvement, which includes self-diagnosis, targeted practice, a supportive learning environment, and partners working together to put new skills into practice on the air.

This figure provides an overview of the Comprehensive Instant Character Recognition Course.  Modules focused on each of the elements are introduced as the 10-week course progresses. (Click image to enlarge)

Instantly recognizing a received character is liberating.  Rather than performing mental translation, you learn to recognize each code sound pattern as a letter, number, or punctuation mark; in much the same manner that you immediately recognize the printed symbols making up the text on this page.  CICR provides the tools and methods for achieving instant character recognition, but also emphasizes that new weaknesses in character recognition will continue to appear as your copying of code becomes more challenging.  When that happens, it is time to circle back and further improve your recognition skills.  The same tools continue to work. Continue reading Beyond the Basics with CW Innovations

Guest Post: Watch Your Tone

Many thanks to Matt (W6CSN) who shares the following post  from his blog at W6CSN.Blog:


Watch Your Tone

by Matt (W6CSN)

In this modern era of radio technology, where even analog radio is largely digital, we amateurs are accustomed to perfect signal quality all the time.

Nevermind the perfunctory 599s that are handed out during contests, for activities like Parks On The Air and Summits On The Air I believe most of us like to send and receive an honest RST report.

R-S-T from the 1938 edition of the ARRL Handbook

Although subjective, readability (R) and signal strength (S) are pretty well understood quantities. But what about tone, the T in R-S-T ? When was the last time you sent or received a tone value other than “9” (the highest value) ?

Last evening, at the end of one of my frequent activations of the Presidio of San Francisco (K-7889), I struggled to pull a barely readable and very weak signal out of the noise. For what it’s worth, the natural noise floor was very low, with the geomagnetic field listed as “Inactive” on qrz.com.

One of these stations had a distorted signal ?

What made the signal particularly difficult was that it sounded quite distorted. The problem I faced was how to tell the OM that it sounded like his signal had been through a blender. The numbers in the Tone scale go from 1 to 9 but I did not have any understanding of the specific defects encoded by the scale. I needed to send a report, and quick, so I dashed out a “225” followed by “DISTORTED.” But I was unhappy that I needed to send an extra, unexpected word to explain the reason for the “5” tone.

Tone

1–Sixty cycle a.c or less, very rough and broad.
2–Very rough a.c., very harsh and broad.
3–Rough a.c. tone, rectified but not filtered.
4–Rough note, some trace of filtering.
5–Filtered rectified a.c. but strongly ripple-modulated.
6–Filtered tone, definite trace of ripple modulation.
7–Near pure tone, trace of ripple modulation.
8–Near perfect tone, slight trace of modulation.
9–Perfect tone, no trace of ripple or modulation of any kind.

http://arrl.org/quick-reference-operating-aids

When I got home I resolved to refresh my knowledge on the R-S-T system so that I could have it at my disposal while operating and on the rare occasion when a tone value other than 9 is warranted.

May your signals always be strong and pure.

73 de W6CSN

Guest Post: CW OPS Academy – a great route to CW skills

Many thanks to Steve (MW0SAW) for the following guest post:


CW OPS Academy – a great route to CW skills.

by Steve (MW0SAW)

I had tried twice before to self learn CW and failed to stay motivated past learning a few characters. If you can talk, you are capable of learning CW like any language. But as most CW operators have already discovered, most of us need to put the hours in, it’s a journey and an investment.

So about two and a half years ago I decided to have a go at learning CW for a 3rd time, my interest in DX chasing was strong and I met with a now good friend Kevin who introduced me to SOTA. I started using the G4FON windows application, using the Farnsworth method. After a few weeks I got to the point where I felt I knew most of the letters. I started operating basic DX <callsign report TU> exchanges and before I knew it my country count was increasing as I realised there are a lot of stations out there that only operate CW.

So the months went by, I got my first DXCC and I was content with my progress. I even tried to activate a few sota summits. Which was a bit of a baptism of fire I might add! I became interested in Thomas’s QRPer blog and YouTube channel, finding listening to the CW activations very helpful practice.

So after 18 months I was happy I hadn’t given up, but I couldn’t really have a rag chew and my biggest mistake I had realised is that I had become dependent on a cw decoder on the background of my PC. When listening to CW and looking at the decoder, your brain takes the path of least resistance. This totally bypasses your ability to decode CW in your head.

As it happened Kevin was fascinated to see a couple of my CW SOTA activation efforts. In the coming months he signed up for the beginners CW Ops academy course. Kevin encouraged me to join him and before I knew it I was on the course about 4 sessions into the semester.

CW ops academy has been created by some wonderful folks whose passion is to spread the joy of CW to more operators around the world. Each level is an 8 week, 16 session semester, with a bi-weekly zoom call with your fellow students. If you are serious about making a 1 hour per day practice commitment then you will be rewarded with new friendships, progression and motivation on your CW journey. It really is a great way to keep pushing forward and improving.

I decided to join the next level (fundamentals), but after participating in the first 2 sessions, Bob at CW ops, moved me up to the Intermediate class.  I just successfully completed this, ended at 25wpm characters with QSOs and stories at 20 Farnsworth. All the CW ops levels can be found on the CW ops academy website.

So I guess I have to try the Advanced level next to see if I have what it takes lol.

Every day each QSO I make and each YouTube video I hear gets that little bit easier, and I pick out more and more of the conversation. I would like to give a big thanks to the administrators and instructors of the CW ops academy. Also of course a big thank you to my fellow CW ops students and new friends

Check Out Vince’s Quick Start Guide to SOTAmat!

If you’re not familiar, SOTAmat is an incredibly valuable app and tool for spotting yourself on the SOTA or POTA networks when you’re truly off-grid and outside the range of mobile phone service.

Check out this two minute intro to SOTAmat:

Setting up SOTAmat for the first time can be a bit confusing, but it’s not difficult. It is important, however, that everything is set up in advance of your SOTA or POTA adventures.

Our friend Vince (VE6LK) has just published a “Quick Start” guide to SOTAmat. It’s concise, and covers everything you’ll need to get set up and running with SOTAmat!

Click here to watch on YouTube.

Thanks for putting this tutorial together, Vince!

SOTAmat is an incredibly powerful resource for those of us who activate parks and summits in remote locations. I highly recommend downloading the app and making it a part of your SOTA/POTA tool kit!

For more information about SOTAmat and for links to the apps, check out the SOTAmat website!

N5FY’s First CW POTA Activation!

My First CW POTA Activation

by Joshua (N5FY)

As I often do, I hunted yet another CW POTA activator during my lunch break while working from home.

I have been learning CW for most of the year. Early on, I realized that with a bit of practice sending, and after listening to recordings of POTA activations, like those from Thomas, I could reliably send the proper exchange needed to hunt a POTA activator.

If you can give your call sign, signal report, and state abbreviation, you can make the contact. I started early on with just the basics and then added some of the common “extras” like GM for good morning, TU for Thank You and then 73. Not only is this great practice for getting on the air sending CW, it’s also very rewarding while learning CW. The exchange is short, standard, and easy to follow with a bit of practice.

CW Practice with the Morserino32 and a Cup of Coffee
CW Practice with the Morserino32 and a Cup of Coffee

Once I finished my upgrade to Extra I focused all my spare time, not much though truth be told, on practicing CW.

At some point this summer I set the goal to Activate POTA/SOTA during the W4G SOTA campout this fall. This really wasn’t an aggressive goal, one I figured was attainable but also one that I could hold myself accountable to even knowing I had a very busy summer ahead of me.

W4G SOTA Campout Summit View Yanah Mountain Bald
W4G SOTA Campout Summit View Yanah Mountain Bald October 2022

During one of the LICW Club classes I heard again that their goal is to get Hams on the air to make a QSO. I thought to myself, yes, that is great, and I want to do more, but I know I have made many QSOs in CW on the air, albeit very short and simple ones. So, I was curious how many.

I jumped on the POTA site and looked up my statistics. I was surprised at how may hundred I had, and yet at the same time, I was a bit disappointed. It’s not that I wanted to have made more CW contacts, it’s that I realized that they were ALL from hunting and not a single one was from calling CQ.

So, I changed my goal.

I know that Hams, especially CW operators, are a great bunch of people and they want to see new CW operators succeed, so there is lots of patience when you call CQ. So, I decided to move up my timeline. This was on a Thursday, and Saturday was a likely candidate for a POTA outing, why not–?

Saturday was my birthday, and I knew I could get away with some personal free time in the morning where I could dive in and call CQ POTA DE N5FY. The next day, Friday, I firmed it up, I would head out in the morning, bring the new to me KX2 and see what happens.

Surprisingly, I was much less nervous than I expected, I had told myself that it wouldn’t help anyways to be nervous so just do it and see what happens. I made it to my local park, to the picnic table I frequent, then setup a No Transformer 2-Wire antenna with the KX2. One press of the ATU button and I had a 1:1 match on 40m band.

Of course, I have great timing. I could not believe the stations on the air on 40m. I never did look but there must have been a contest. I moved up and down about 20kHz and there were stations everywhere! I called “QRL?” on 2 different frequencies and had a reply before I landed on open frequency where I could call CQ.

N5FY First CW Activation KX2 Setup
N5FY First CW Activation KX2 Setup

I had not scheduled the activation; I knew I had a bit of cell phone coverage at this park, so I set the CQ POTA message to calling while I posted a spot.

After two calls, I had my first call back. It was time!

I could have freaked out here, but I was too focused on decoding to even be nervous! Of course, I had to send a partial call and a “?” once or twice to get the full call right. Of course, I made some keying errors. But the caller had patience and worked me and we made the QSO. Now I was really excited!

I called CQ and someone sent me back dits and dahs, and I decoded what they were sending! Boy, this was fun! I continued to call CQ POTA, and tried my best to decode the replies, several pileups, and lots of “?” sent by me. But I was making contacts and having a blast!

After a couple of silent CQ calls later, I switched to 20m. And, again, started to get replies back as well as a couple small pileups. In the end, there were a couple call signs that I could not look up, l had a letter or two wrong, but with almost 20 in the log I knew I had an activation and boy was I happy!

N5FY First CW Activation QSO Map
N5FY First CW Activation QSO Map

Looking back on the activation, and after talking to another Ham, it occurred to me why I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I might be.

You see, when you are the Activator, when you call CQ, the ball is in your court, you invite people to call back and they are there for you. I almost get more nervous hunting as I don’t want to slow down an activator or run over another caller. But when you are the one calling CQ, it’s your game!

Of course there were several hiccups along the way. For one, it got HOT sitting in the sun. I ended up deploying my hiking chair on the table as a sunshade and pulled a portable fan out of the car. Even the action camera overheated while recording the activation. I couldn’t get the KXPD2 paddle to key the KX2 on 20m when I first got setup. And of course, I had lots of sending errors (although fewer than I expected to have) and sent a A LOT of “?” asking for a repeat.

That said, I am very glad to have jumped in and will continue to activate CW going forward as I continue to build my CW skills. For me, confidence in the ability to Activate on CW is great motivation for practicing, which again, is my biggest learning. If I want to be a good operator, I need to put in the effort, and going out to play radio is one extremely fun way to practice!

73 Joshua N5FY

Six things I learned after becoming a CW operator and activator

Friday evening, I met with my good friends on the crew of the Ham Radio Workbench podcast and we recorded an episode. During the recording, Vince (VE6LK) spoke about his CW goal progress (which, by the way, is going quite well) and he mentioned that he’s moving into the phase where CW is becoming fun.

Vince’s comment reminded me that I started a post draft many weeks ago that focused on several things I learned during my own CW journey. These were all surprises–perhaps even small revelations–that either no one ever told me about in advance or I thought couldn’t possibly apply to me.

This morning, I decided to finish off this post and publish it, so here are six things I learned after becoming a CW operator and activator:

1. More (much more) space on the bands

So, in theory, I understood this prior to becoming a CW activator. As we do our license study, we all learn that CW, as a mode, is a fraction of the bandwidth of Single-Sideband (SSB).

But in practice–when I moved from operating SSB to CW–it almost felt like I had an unfair advantage. That’s especially the case today with the popularity of POTA and SOTA. The bands can be crowded.

I love SSB, but if I’m being completely honest with myself, one of the reasons I operate the mode so little these days (besides the fact that many of my radios are CW only) is because it’s orders of magnitude easier to find a clear spot on the bands as a CW activator. This is especially the case on weekends when bands are generally more crowded.

CW is such a narrow bandwidth mode, I can be 500 Hz away from another signal and we don’t interfere with each other.

2. You really do begin to recognize peoples’ fists

My CW friends have always told me this, but I didn’t really believe it until I took a deep-dive into the world of CW.

You will start to recognize the cadence and “fist” of operators you work regularly who don’t send mechanically perfect CW (i.e. those sending CW from a keyboard).

This is especially the case with ops who use straight keys, cooties, and/or semi-automatic bugs, but even those who use electronic keyers.

Our brains are obviously quite good at recognizing patterns.  Without trying, variances in speed, spacing, and cadence of operators you work regularly become obvious and expected. After you recognize someone’s fist, their callsign will pop out of a pileup. It’s the equivalent of recognizing someone’s accent. It’s pretty amazing, actually.

3. CW gets easier with on-the-air time

Although some of my friends did mention this when I was learning CW, I think I just couldn’t believe it.

As a CW student–when I was learning all of the characters and trying to build speed–it felt like a real struggle. I remember how hard my brain had to work in some of my first QSOs and rag chews. I literally had to rest afterwards!

But a funny thing happens when you simply get on the air and start using CW regularly at comfortable speeds.

Without trying, CW just gets easier and easier. In fact, this is what Vince discovered too: CW evolved from being difficult to being downright pleasurable.

I remember in my early days of doing CW activations, I’d arrive on site and before I started calling CQ, I’d think, “I hope I remember how to operate CW–!” Of course I did, but there was a part of me that thought I could simply forget all that I’d learned and freeze up.

As I built confidence, I was still very much aware of just how much attention I had to focus on listening to the other op and copying their call and exchange correctly. It wasn’t easy.

But within just a few months of doing random CW POTA activations, the mode became a pleasure to use even though I still had to work a bit to copy fast operators or those with distinctive fists. Complicated copy  moved from being a struggle and brain-drain to being more of a puzzle I enjoyed putting together.

Your brain naturally taps into that language center whether you want it to or not and, quite often, without you realizing it.

It just gets easier and effortless. And fun.

4. CW therapy is a real thing

You’ve often heard me call POTA and SOTA “radio therapy” and indeed it is. There’s just something about tapping into that community of radio friends that puts me in a great mood.

CW maybe even takes it a step further.

I mentioned in point #3 that as you learn CW, it becomes a mode you look forward to using–one that gives you a great sense of pleasure.

For me–and for a number of my radio friends–CW is also therapeutic.

How so?

When I operate CW, I go into a focused state of mind that’s actually quite relaxing. When I’m operating CW, all of my stresses seem to melt away while I’m on the air and the feeling doesn’t end when I hop off the air. It just seems to put me in a good mood.

I liken it to mountain biking. When I’m cycling on a single-track trail, I have to give all of my attention to the path in front of me and simply enjoy the experience of pedaling through the forest. I don’t worry about my obligations, my email load, hectic schedule, or projects that need attention. I’m more mindful of tree roots, puddles, and wildlife.

For me, it’s the same when I operate CW; I simply live in the moment and, turns out, that’s therapy money just can’t buy!

5. CW opens the door to the 30 meter band

It’s funny, but I never thought about this prior to becoming a CW operator: CW (and digital mode) operators have access to the 30 meter amateur radio band.

What’s so special about 30 meters? Quite a lot actually:

  • 30 meters is a WARC band! So on contest weekends? It’s a refuge for non-contest activities like POTA, SOTA, and/or rag-chewing.
  • 30 meters feels like a blend of 40 and 20 meters in terems of its properties.  The propagation footprint is a little wider than 40 meters, but not quite as wide as 20 meters.
  • Sometimes the 30 meter band is open when 40 meters or 20 meters is closed or wiped out by flaring.
  • 30 meter antennas are easy to deploy in the field and at home. For example, a 30M end-fed half-wave (EFHW) is a little longer than a 20M EFHW, but shorter than a 40M EFHW. Also, it’s not difficult to build a 40M EFHW with a link that you can disconnect to make it a 30M EFHW.

Above and beyond all of these specific points, I remember times when the 40 and 20 meter band simply weren’t productive and the 30 meter band saved my bacon.

In short? If you’re a CW (or digital mode) operator, you really need to take advantage of the 30 meter band!

6. No one cares about how slowly you send or any mistakes you make as a new operator

Seriously.

I speak as someone who remembers all of my first CW QSOs and activations and as someone who regularly works new CW operators today.

Most of us are a bit self-conscious when we first try our hand at CW. We worry about how we’ll sound to other operators and we don’t want to annoy them.

I’ll let you in on a few secrets:

  1. Every CW operator on the air has been in your shoes at the beginning of their CW journey. They get it. They’ll be patient with you and, in fact, encouraging! The reaction you’re likely to experience from them is empathy–you just can’t hear that over the air.
  2. I get a thrill out of working new CW operators. When I hear a slow, nervous, and shaky fist, I go out of my way to work them. I’ll give them all of the time they need to get their exchange across accurately. It’s an honor to work a new CW operator.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask other ops to “QRS” (slow down) or send “AGN?” (again?) or question marks to clarify an exchange or call sign. The other op would much rather slow down for you and repeat to help you. It’s not an annoyance…on the contrary…it benefits them.

In short: it’s safe to simply ignore these worries. The CW community is an incredibly supportive one. You’re among kindred spirits that are here to help you!

How about you?

These are just six things I learned after becoming a CW operator.

Of course, there were many advantages of CW that motivated me to learn the mode in the first place like:

  • Being able to use the Reverse Beacon Network for auto-spotting.
  • Opening the door to super simple, ultra-cool compact CW-only radios.
  • Making the most of my QRP power. I’ve often heard that 5 Watts CW is a rough equivalent to 70 Watts SSB.
  • Being able to operate stealthily when needed. When CW operators use earphones, we make almost no noise at all in the field save the sound of our key clicking!

So. readers, what did you discover after learning CW? Or, what are you looking forward to after you learn CW?

Feel free to comment!

POTA on Mount Mitchell: The new REZ Ranger 80 and how to use the Over/Under method to coil wire and cable

The REZ Ranger 80 antenna system ships with everything you need, including a nice backpack.

Back in March, I received an email from Mike Giannaccio (W5REZ) the owner of REZ Antenna Systems–he was curious if I’d like to check out his REZ Ranger 80 antenna system.

At the time, my plate was pretty full, so he arranged to send it to me on loan in July.

If you’re not familiar, the Ranger 80 is a portable vertical antenna with a tuning coil at the base that employs a sliding tap for tuning. The Ranger 80 will cover anywhere from 80 – 15 meters without needing any sort of external matching device (like an ATU).

The Ranger 80 Tuning Coil.

If you’re familiar with the Wolf River Coils antenna systems, then you’re familiar with this type of vertical antenna. The difference is that the Ranger 80 is built to what I could only describe as MilSpec standards.

Much of the Ranger 80’s components are CNC machined from premium materials. It sports a Delrin body, black anodized 6061 aluminum, and all stainless steel hardware.

This is not a featherweight antenna: it has the heft to match the caliber of materials used in its construction. It’s not an inexpensive antenna either–it’s currently about $560 US at DX Engineering.

The base of the Ranger 80: note the beautifully CNC-machined holes for the four counterpoises.

The Ranger 80 is also rated for 500W SSB and 250W CW/Digital–in other words, quite a bit more power than I’d ever use in the field, but this design will make activators and field ops happy that like to push some wattage.

I was curious how easy the Ranger 80 would be to deploy and tune, so on Sunday, August 6, 2023, I took it to one of my favorite parks on the planet.

Mount Mitchell State Park (K-2747)

I wasn’t alone on this trip: it was a proper family picnic with my wife, daughters and, of course, Hazel.

The weather was very moody that day–driving up to the park, we watched clouds and mists rise up through the trees like waves crashing on a rocky coast line. Continue reading POTA on Mount Mitchell: The new REZ Ranger 80 and how to use the Over/Under method to coil wire and cable

Can a Field Day or contest contact count as a valid POTA contact?

Many thanks to @thogevoll who asked the following question following my field report and video from Field Day 2023:

Thomas, I’m still new to POTA and have not done an activation yet.

How does a Field Day contact from a park count as a POTA contact? Is it simply that you are operating from park? Do you have to send the park ID number? Or, is that actually not even required for POTA contacts?

These are great questions.

The short answer is, YES: almost any simplex contact you make as an activator counts as a POTA contact regardless of the exchange used.

I’ll try to break this down…

Contests, as a rule of thumb, have a defined exchange and the elements of that exchange must be logged with each contact. This often includes things like signal report, section, region, and/or serial number.

ARRL Field Day is no exception.

If you look at the Field Day video I posted, you’ll note N3CZ and I were logging our Field Day contacts on N3FJP’s Field Day version of ACLog. Two key components of the Field Day exchange are the section, and the category (1B, 2A, etc.). We were running 1B (one op, QRP, battery) NC (North Carolina).

Those elements must be logged in order to have a valid Field Day Contact.

POTA ≠ Contest

Parks On The Air, on the other hand, is not a contest. It’s simply an on-the-air activity that has no defined start and end time. You can activate or hunt a park any time of the day or night, any day of the year.

While there is a generally accepted convention for POTA exchanges (which varies based on country/region), there is no formal required exchange. The POTA activator guide is very clear about this.

True, we POTA activators in the US and Canada tend to exchange both the signal report and the state or province, but this isn’t done in most other countries in the world. It’s up to the activator if they send the park number.

Convention in voice modes is to send the park number, but it’s less common in CW unless a hunter asks for it or if you’re completing a Park-to-Park contact. That said, there’s nothing preventing you from sending the park number with each contact if you like.

For a POTA contact, you really only need to log the station/call, time, mode, and frequency. Those details are submitted with your logs that detail the park number, date, activator, etc. and then uploaded to the POTA database in an .ADI file.

Working contesters as an activator

If I happen to pick a crowded contest weekend to activate a park and don’t have a rig or antenna that can escape to the peace and quiet of the WARC bands (and, yes, POTA is very much allowed on the WARC bands) then I often hunt and work contest contacts. I especially do this if band conditions are rough and the contest activity is dense.

I prefer, of course, to run one frequency as a POTA activator in order to open the park to POTA hunters–that’s why I use the WARC bands on contest weekends–but in a pinch, I might work contesters in order to get the ten contacts needed to validate an activation.

Of course, I need to sort out the contest exchange and use that with each contact, but that’s not too difficult. Those random folks I log have no idea I’m activating a park.

I should also note that many contests (Field Day may be one of these) don’t allow self-spotting, so when Vlado and I worked as a Field Day station this year, we did not spot ourselves on the POTA network. We were actually making Field Day contacts first and foremost, with the side-benefit of activating a park at the same time.

In other words, we simply logged our Field Day contacts per FD requirements, then (with a bit of log tweaking) uploaded the log to both the ARRL and the POTA network.

In POTA, only the activator is required to submit their logs, not the hunter; they get credit via your uploaded activator logs.

POTA: Some QSO exceptions

To be clear (and redundant), any contact you make at a park–even when the other op isn’t a POTA participant–counts as a POTA contact, with a few side notes and exceptions:

  • Contacts via a land repeater are not allowed. I can’t hop on a local repeater and make/log valid POTA contacts. I can, however, hop on a local repeater and ask for someone to spot me or meet me on a simplex frequency for a contact.
  • Satellite repeaters are allowed. All satellite contacts are allowed.
  • Fully automated QSOs are prohibited. I can’t set up one of those fully-automated digital mode applications that will run unattended. As the POTA rules state: “Each contact must include direct action by both operators making the contact.

I believe every POTA activator should read through both the POTA rules and Activator Guide prior to your first activation.

Summary

We’re entering the heaviest part of the contest season at present. If you arrive at a park on the weekend and discover that the bands are absolutely chock-full of contest stations–and you can’t find a free frequency to do your activation–feel free to work and log contest stations!

Otherwise, do what many of us do and either escape to the WARC bands or move closer to the band edges (being careful not to go too far) where you’ll typically find more free space.

Do you combine Field Day, contests, and special events with POTA? Feel free to comment with your approach!