As more and more radio operators hit the field to activate parks and summits, many want to turn to CW to benefit from Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) spotting and also to take advantages of the inherent efficiencies of CW at QRP power levels.
Thing is, CW is a skill so there is a learning curve associated with it.
The learning curve is actually more modest than you might think, which is the reason there are so many new operators employing this earliest of communication modes.
A reader recently asked if he thought he could get away with doing a park activation for POTA using the built-in CW decoder in his transceiver and an external memory keyer pre-programmed with a wide variety of exchanges and signal reports. He even thought about using a keyboard-based keyer as opposed to paddles or a straight key.
The idea would be to get on the CW bands for experience as he’s learning CW. At present, he doesn’t know CW at all, but he’s starting to learn.
His question was simple, “Could I activate a park with this sort of setup?”
My reply? “Possibly. It would likely be frustrating.”
Before getting into a field activation, let’s talk about one area where even modest CW skills can be used to snag contacts.
Working short exchange DX in CW
There are a number of DXers who effectively rely on CW skimmers, keyboard sending, and pre-programmed exchanges in order to work DX.
How do they do this? It’s simple, really:
DX exchanges are incredibly simple and formulaic.
For example, in order to work a typical DXpedition the only CW one really needs to know is what one’s own callsign sounds like in CW at a relatively high speed.
To work a DXpedition in CW, for example, I would only need to program the following two messages in my CW memory keyer:
- “K4SWL” (my callsign)
- “5NN TU DE K4SWL” or ” K4SWL 5NN TU” or even simply “5NN TU“
That’s it, really. Here’s how it would play out…
I simply press the memory button with my callsign to call the DXpedition.
When the DXpedition sends back my callsign and possibly a signal report (“K4SWL 5NN“), I then press the memory button with my reply (“5NN TU“).
My only skill would be knowing what my callsign sounds like in CW at 20-30 WPM. That’s actually very easy to learn.
The reason why this procedure is so easy is because you only need to recognize your own callsign in CW; the DXpedition at the other end is doing all of the hard work by picking callsigns from the pileup and replying.
Anyone could learn how to work these short DX exchanges in CW over a weekend. It’s not always as easy and straight-forward as the example above (sometimes, for example, the DX may only send back a portion of your callsign with a question mark) but it is possible to work short exchange DX and DXpeditions without knowing much CW at all.
CW Skimmers vs. Built-in transceiver decoding
At home, you can also use powerful CW skimmers on your computer–sometimes via SDR applications–to decode CW across the bands. In the field, you could also use a laptop or tablet to do the same thing. The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) uses CW skimming to spot CW activators 24/7. It’s obviously pretty effective.
This particular reader was asking about using their transceiver’s built-in CW decoder along with pre-programmed CW exchanges.
I’ve reviewed numerous transceivers with built-in CW decoders. Some work better than others.
Transceivers decoders are typically pretty basic and not terribly adaptive. Some struggle with code that varies in speed–for example, it might expect received code at the same speed your keyer is set to. That doesn’t always happen, of course.
Also, most transceivers will only interpret code that is completely tuned in properly–many have CWT and auto tuning functionality to center the frequency on the received signal.
If your transceiver likes the code speed and if you’re properly tuned in, you could get a very good read of the code being sent to you.
However, transceiver decoders (at present) will get confused by:
- multiple signals (i.e. a CW pileup)
- sloppy sending (junk in, junk out!)
- signals that drift
- and depending on the operator’s skill, straight keys, semi-automatic keys, and side-swipers (or “cooties”) can also confuse them
In other words, transceiver decoders are simple and typically are looking for standard, electronically-keyed code that’s properly tuned-in. They’re better at handling a rag-chew with a friend rather than the dynamic environment of multiple CW ops calling a site activation.
With this said, some transceivers are better at CW decoding than others. Your mileage will vary.
But the real rub?
When activating a site, you are the DX.
When you’re activating a park or summit, the burden of interpreting incoming callsigns falls on you. Built-in transceiver CW decoders are not good at pulling apart multiple callsigns being sent all at once. In fact, all of the transceivers I’ve used in the field only have one line of decoded text that scrolls across the screen.
If you activate a park and only one chaser/hunter calls you at a time, they’re spot on your frequency, and sending clean code, you probably could effectively use your transceiver’s CW decoder and pre-programmed messages to complete an exchange. This “ideal” situation would likely be fairly rare, in truth.
Your brain is a better
Your brain is much better at adapting, so there’s just no escaping building your CW skillset if you want to activate a park, summit, island, or any site where you are the DX.
Good news is, there are a number of applications, courses, and programs out there to help you build CW skills.
One place to start is the Long Island CW Club. I’ve heard so many success stories from their program. (Please comment with suggestions that have helped you!)
And when you’ve learned just enough CW to hop on the air, I highly recommend using the free Morse Runner application to practice handling small pileups.
Also? Chase first!
Before attempting a CW activation and getting frustrated by the experience, I would try chasing at home first using your transceiver’s decoder.
Chasing is a situation where you can make the decoder work better for you, because you’re only focusing on one target signal (an activator) at a time.
I did a lot of chasing as I was working on my CW activation skills. I also chased ARRL Field Day contacts and made a 13 Colonies “Clean Sweep” employing a bit of CW. Since the CW exchanges were so formulaic, it wasn’t all that difficult.
Side Note: DMX-40
Ironically, as I was writing this article, I learned about a product made by the company PrepComm called the DMX-40. I believe a reader may have commented with a link at some point.
The DMX-40 is basically a 40 meter self-contained QRP transceiver designed to send and decode CW. The idea behind the DMX-40 stems more from an emergency communications point of view: you won’t need to learn CW in order to use it during emergency or one-on-one communications.
I’m tempted to test the DMX-40 to see how well it works in the real world. So far, I haven’t seen a review where it’s truly put through the paces in real-time. I might ask the manufacturer to send me a loaner if there’s interest. Let me know in the comments if you think it might be worth reviewing. I am curious if it would work for the odd CW rag-chew and/or chasing CW park and summit activators. I assume, based on the product description and specs, its CW decoder would be much more robust than, say, the decoder in my Elecraft KX2.
Being completely transparent here, I’ve had this article in my drafts folder for the past three or four weeks. I initially wrote it thinking it would be a pretty simple answer. In truth, though, I’ve never attempted a CW activation only using my transceiver’s decoder.
There may be some savvy operators who could make this work using a CW skimmer and keyboard-based keyer with macros, but I think it would be an operation in frustration. I think it would discourage me more than anything else.
I do think there’s a place for CW decoders. In fact, I found the one in my KX3 incredibly helpful as I started chasing CW signals on the air from home. I never completely relied on the decoder, I simply used it to confirm what I though I was hearing. It built my confidence.
In the end, I believe it’s easier to simply learn some CW. It’s not really that difficult and I firmly believe it’s good for your brain!
Please comment if you regularly employ a CW decoder, have completed a field activation with one, or if you simply used one while learning CW. I would also love to hear from folks who use CW skimmers and what applications they use. Indeed, I’d love to hear any of your considerate thoughts on the topic.