It's been a year since my post about Morse Code: Brief History, and I figure I might as well shed some light on how to get started operating with Morse Code. Since the Morse code requirement for ham radio was lifted in 2007, the number of amateurs getting their HF privileges has grown substantially, but with the "repeal" of code, entry level Technicians are granted privileges in certain portions of the bands. Most commonly, Technicians can operate SSB in the 10m band, but can also operate CW, or Morse Code, in 80m, 40m, 15m, and 10m. So, if you're a ham, you already have privileges to operate CW - you just need to learn where to start.
Learning the Code
For starters, you will need to learn Morse Code, one way or another. (duh.) While it may not be the universally agreed upon best way, I learned Morse Code through the Code Quick program. It really is an easy way to learn and quickly remember the code. There are countless gimmicks and "5 Minute Ab"-type programs that try to rush you through the learning process as fast as humanly possible, but few are ever successful. You just can't hurry the learning process. The downside of the CodeQuick method is not immediately known until you're trying to copy signals that are faster and faster. Once you hit about 10wpm, the CodeQuick lessons that you've used as a crutch finally become a hindrance and make copying code faster more difficult. The big plus is how quickly you'll learn the code in relatively enjoyable lessons compared to other methods.
Another alternative to learning the code is one of dozens of Koch method trainers. The Koch method, and most others, ram the code into your head seemingly through brute force. You learn the code, but for most people it simply is not entertaining or enjoyable as CodeQuick. However, the hard work you put in up front pays off in the end as you are able to increase you speed with relative ease compared to the CodeQuick program. So it's all about where you want to put in the work, now or later. Because most people because frustrated or quickly lose interest with other methods, I recommend CodeQuick in spite of the "plateau" effect you encounter when trying to speed up your copying skills. Unless you enjoy learning it, the learning curve is almost insurmountable.
There really is no substitute for the "sweat equity" you're going to need to put in to learning the code. It will take time to learn, there's no magic pill. I listened to the CodeQuick training lessons when I was in the car by myself. I wasn't bothering anyone else and I could pass the time by learning something. So consider your personal schedule and think about when you might have time to idly study code.
Copy, copy, copy
Knowing the characters and having the recall ability are helpful, but you still need to try some "live" copy. That is, it's easier to send letters when you know what they are; it's another thing altogether to try to understand what another person is trying to tell you.
There are several practice resources available on the web that will send you random letters or news headlines in Morse code. Copying code is harder than sending code, practice copying others' code more than you practice sending your own.
One of the best sources to copy live code on the air is to use the ARRL station W1AW, which transmits at set speeds and specific times. W1AW transmits a very strong signal, so you should have little trouble hearing the practice sets in North America.
As with all things, there's some terminology with Morse code.
WPM is a commonly used acronym for "Words Per Minute". That is, the speed at which the numbers and letters are coming at you. For the sake of standard measurement, WPM has been defined as 5-character groupings. If we're talking about 20wpm, that's going to be about 100 characters in a minute.
Farnsworth spacing is the act of sending letters at one speed and pausing in between each letter at a different speed. For example, if we're talking about 20wpm, that's 1.6 characters a second - pretty fast! Now, for beginners, the goal is usually 5wpm. 5wpm has become the baseline for proficiency in Morse Code. at 5wpm, that's one character every 2.4 seconds - much slower. As you learn the code, you'll hear 5wpm characters and find yourself impatient. The individual dits and dahs are so spread out, it's hard to hear them as one whole character. Suddenly you hear just E's and T's. (E = dit, T = dah) The solution to this "slow character" rate is to use Farnsworth spacing. You might receive characters at 15-20wpm, but pause a second or two in between each character so you have time to think and write down the letter you heard. That would be 15wpm letters at 5wpm spacing, or "5wpm Farnsworth spacing". The beauty of Farnsworth spacing is as you become faster and faster, the only thing that needs to change is the spacing between characters. The idea is that you'll go from 5wpm to 15wpm without even noticing (over the span of days/weeks of practice).
Getting on the Air
Ok, ok, ok... You've done your homework, you know the code. You're tired of waiting. How do you actually get on the air?
This was exactly where I was for years. For years I knew the code, but I never used it. I was still sitting at 5wpm, but never had any airtime. That all changed when I stumbled across a segment of the CW portion of the dial. For some reason, nobody ever explained to me that if I wanted to meet other 5wpm hams, I'd have to start in the "Novice portion" of the bands. I had listened to and failed to copy hams down in the lower part of the CW bands. This one evening I stumbled across a radio contact (QSO) somewhere between 7.100 and 7.125. I wasn't able to copy 100% but they were going my speed! Wow, I was able to copy their callsigns and even pick up on the gist of their conversation! Finally, there are other beginners out there like me - I just had to know where to look. If I can offer one bit of advice to other would-be CW operators, it's this: Listen around 7.114MHz on the 40m band. If you only remember one thing of this entire write up, it's to remember this portion of the CW bands. I was a frustrated CW wannabe until I "discovered" the Novice bands. You'll almost always hear someone around there and they shouldn't be going too much faster than you can copy. It's the absolute best place to start with learning code. 10m may not propagate all the time, 15m can be finicky too, 80m is good, but not as popular for slow speed as 40m.
Chances are you've already read how basic QSOs go, they're usually chalk full of acronyms, lingo and abbreviations, but they generally go like this:
CQ CQ CQ de N5DUX N5DUX CQ K
N5DUX de W1AW W1AW W1AW K
W1AW de N5DUX = RST 599 = QTH TX = NAME TOMMY = QSL? K
N5DUX de W1AW = FB TOMMY = RST 579 = QTH CT = NAME HIRAM = BTU K
W1AW de N5DUX = THX FER CALL HIRAM = JUST LRNING CODE = 73 de N5DUX K
N5DUX de W1AW = OK TOMMY = KEEP IT UP = 73 de W1AW SK
Copious amounts of abbreviations are used with Morse Code. Misspelled words while a travesty on the internet are understood for the sake of time in Morse Code. Saving a dit or dah here or there can add up over the course of a conversation. QSL, K, QTH, CQ, RST, 73 - all of these are abbreviations commonly used in CW. (QSL = "do you copy?", QTH = "my location", CQ = "seek you", RST = "signal readability, strength, tone", K = "over/back to you", 73 = "best wishes, goodbye")
So, now that you know the most common abbreviations (known as Q codes), you can probably gather the gist of the exchange. Basically N5DUX is calling out to see if anyone can hear him. It's the radio equivalent of a fisherman putting his hook in the water. W1AW comes back with his callsign, saying it 3 times to ensure N5DUX copies it correctly. Once he does, N5DUX acknowledges W1AW by calling him specifically and tell him how strong his signal sounds to his location. He informs W1AW of his location and then gives his name. W1AW, upon receiving this, replies with his information. Right there is generally what is regarded as a "contact", everything else that may be exchanges are niceties and can be as brief or as long as possible.
In order to make your CW experience as comfortable for you as possible, it pays to have a good setup. Of primary importance, is the radio and antenna. You will need a radio that can operate in your intended band. If you're just getting started, you may simply want a radio that can receive CW until you feel more at ease with copying code. Some general receivers have CW mode, but you will need to ensure you can hear the "dits and dahs" before anything else. Most modern HF ham radios support CW (in part because it's such a simple mode to have on a radio - arguably the easiest!).
Once you have a receiver you will need an antenna. The easiest antenna for constructing is the dipole. If you're only receiving, you don't need anything fancy. In general, the more wire the better, but a tuned antenna for 40m is the most efficient and will provide the best signal.
If you are planning on transmitting, I suggest getting a good straight key. I started with some MFJ paddles and enjoyed them, but nothing really beats a straight key for truly getting that organic feel of sending code. I picked up an old US Navy "flameproof" straight key from eBay for a good price. It's rugged, solid feel is far superior to the under $10 straight key you'll find in junk bins at every hamfest. Those will work if you've got nothing else - but then again so do paperclips and thumbtacks.
Beyond the radio equipment itself, I recommend a set of headphones. Headphones help to block out any distracting noises and help your brain really focus on just the sounds you need to hear.
You'll also need a couple of pencils, a pad of paper, to write down the conversation as it unfolds. Just for kicks an internet connected computer is helpful. Having a computer so you can lookup the callsigns you hear on QRZ.com is a big help. By looking up the other guy's name, you can see at a glance where he's from and his name. These will help you out when he's sending his information to you. It helps confirm where he's from and it also gives your brain a little rest as you already know the information. Just be sure to follow along as he sends it to you, he may not be at home or he may go by another name. (Many hams shorten their names when they're in CW because it saves a few dits and dahs. Thomas may be shortened to Tom, Robert may be Bob or Rob, etc. (On a personal note, I go by Tommy in CW because that's my day-to-day name. I don't go by Tom on a daily basis and I wouldn't introduce myself to you in real life, so I keep it Tommy in CW. Besides T-O-M in Morse isn't as "fun" as T-O-M-M-Y. The -.-- on the end is a bit more fun and recognizable. )
If you're station is all setup and ready to make a contact, you'll probably get a bit nervous. Calling CQ is one thing, copying someone's response is another. I'll admit there were times I called CQ repeatedly and when someone came back to me, I effectively "hung up" on the guy. When I heard my callsign coming back to me I got excited and scared. I completely lost my ability to copy and just turned off the radio! It really happened - silly I know. (Sorry whoever you were!) Radio contacts don't have to be long, but your brain will hurt after just a few minutes of your first few contacts. It's taxing when you are starting out, but I'm at the point now that when the radio contact is flowing, it can be a bit relaxing to hear the letters coming out of the air. That part is hard to describe, but other experienced operators will know what I mean. After all, if it wasn't enjoyable, why would thousands and thousands of hams around the world stick with it? I digress.
So your first call should be relaxing. Perhaps you know a CW operator near you that can help you along during your first QSO. Having regular practice under more "controlled" conditions can be a big help before you step up to the plate for real. (There's even an ARRL First Contact Award you can receive for that first, memorable contact.)
Another key rule of operating is to never send faster than you can copy. It's your way of telling the other operator how fast (or slow) you need him to send. If the other operator is sending slower or saying "QRS", slow it down a bit for him. If the other operator is going too fast for you, slow down your sending speed to a comfortable rate and even send "QRS PSE" ("slow down please"). Any operator worth his salt will slow down for a slow spped op. (and you don't ever want to be "that guy"!)
You can read all you want, but eventually you will need to just go for it. After you have a few contacts under your belt, you'll notice you can pick up your speed just a bit. Maybe it'll be going from 5wpm to 6wpm, but eventually you'll find yourself operating faster than you realize. You'll hear another new comer call CQ at 5wpm and it will sound mind numbingly slow. That's when you realize how much you've grown.
Another great way to gain speed is to participate in short, CW "contests" known as sprints. If you have a straight key, the Straight Key Century Club offers free membership. Upon joining, you'll be given an SKCC member number. Write this down prominently, you'll be referring back to it from time to time. Sprints are short, sometimes 2 hour contests that hold no value and are just for fun. As an up-and-coming CW operator, what you'll gain is a lot of experience in a short amount of time. By participating, you'll be able to make a lot of contacts very quickly and each exchange is as brief as possible; so it's "just the facts ma'am". You'll hear the so called "fist" that operators have (the style each operator has of sending dits/dahs, spacing, etc.). You'll also be eligible for the myriad of awards SKCC offers its members.
For further reading, download the free PDF "The Art & Skill of Radiotelegraphy", it's full of helpful information and while dry at points, really does explain the entire concept or CW and the use of Morse Code.
I hope some of this helps. I'll expound on this as I can... 73!