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.
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!