K5LAD - 50+ Years of Ham Radio Memories

Volume X

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends


The ham community is now divided into those who operate CW and those who don't.  Those folks can be subdivided into other groups.  The CW operators include:

1.  Avid operators - wouldn't operate another mode if their life depended on it.  They seldom even talk to others, and when they do they just whistle a lot.

2.  Those who occasionally operate CW, just to stay in practice.  If faced with a key or a microphone, they'll usually choose the mike.

3.  Those who learned the code to get their license (back in the "Good Ole Days") but haven't done much with it since.

4.  Those who learned it many, many QSOs ago but haven't touched a key in years.

 This last group is subdivided into those who freely advertise their future plans with CW.  This first group doesn’t plan to EVER get on CW again.   They're the ones who said, "I ‘learnt’ it back then to ‘git’ my ticket, I got my ticket, and I don't ever plan to operate CW again.  I even gave my key to the dog for him to bury in the back yard."

Then there are those who keep threatening to return to that old digital mode, they just haven't gotten around to it.   They still have their key, and wouldn't get rid of it for anything; it just doesn't hold the highest place of respect among their ham possessions. 

Nye-Viking key.JPG (26935 bytes)

I have long been a member of this last group.  I still have my chrome plated Nye-Viking key with the large Navy knob that I bought from my ham store shortly before I sold it.  I sold a bunch of these keys during the 1970s when I had the store.


I also have a Heath HD-1410 iambic keyer that I built sometime in the 70s (not sure if I ever used it much on the air but I sure spelled out a lot of QST, 73, and CQ articles on it).  Seems like the kit was $49.95 and it is smoother than several of the commercial keyers that I sold.  It includes both the iambic keyer circuit and the matching paddles.


HD-1410.JPG (30266 bytes)

MFJ-564.JPG (24771 bytes)


 Several years ago I bought an MFJ-564 keyer paddle which is a copy of an old but popular key that became available in the 70s, however the original company’s name now escapes me.  Since my Icom IC-756PRO and my Yaesu FT-817 transceivers both had a built-in keyer circuit, I had to have the proper paddle.  It’s also pretty heavy so it makes a nice paperweight.  This picture makes it look like the base is painted in camouflage paint but that’s because the chrome base is so shiny it reflect the parts drawers being reflected.

For years, they sat gathering dust.  I'd been threatening, even promising, some folks that "I'm going to get back on CW" but I just hadn't quite gotten around to it.  Then came the Ducie Island DXpedition in February ‘08.  They were operating on all bands on SSB, CW, and RTTY and their website displayed to the world how many of these bands and modes a person had worked.  The SSB slots were pretty easy to get filled but there were those CW slots................. hmmmmmm.  Perhaps now was the time to cash in on my threat and try some CW.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the operators on the DXpedition, although excellent operators, ran their keying speeds at about 25-35 WPM and that was a bit too speedy for me to try as a starting point.  If I had decided to become a hobo and learn to hop a freight train, I would want to start out with one going very slowly instead of trying immediately to hop one running full tilt through the town.   Still, I wanted to work them and they were out for the maximum number of contacts so they wouldn't be slowing down for me, just because I wanted to get back into the CW game.

Ah, but I hit upon Plan B --- or was that actually Plan M or N?  I discovered a piece of software on the Internet that decoded CW, and did it very well, using the computer.  The software is called "CWDecoderXP" and can be found at http://www.hotamateurprograms.com/downloads.htm

The current version is 2.74 and is listed as the top downloadable program on that page as CW Decoder.  I tried several others but this one worked better for me and with a bonus benefit, the program is FREE.  It uses the computer's sound card for decoding and I already had an MFJ-1279 Sound Card Radio Interface all hooked up.  This MFJ item is not a requirement and there are many simple circuits on the 'net for a simple audio interface.  Because I already had it, I was able to proceed more quickly.

VP6DX_Contacts.jpg (11650 bytes)  My plan worked well and I was able to add 9 CW contacts with the DXpedition on Ducie Island to the 7 SSB contacts I had made.  NOTE:  The operators were never able to get their equipment set up to make 6 meter contacts.  The operators from the February, 2008 DX operation have already QSLed via LoTW (ARRL's Logbook of the World) and it's sure nice to see those CW contacts in my logbook to go along with some that haven't been added to my log for 35+ years.

CWDecoderXP also has a CW sending feature, which allows you to send via your computer's keyboard, however, I have not attempted that yet.  Actually, for the Ducie Island contacts, I had all three of my keys activated.  My keyer paddles were plugged into the transceiver's keyer, and the Heath keyer and the straight key plugged into the regular CW key jack.  I was ready to send back to them any way I could.  Actually I mostly used the straight key for fear I would mess up with the keyer and they would get my call wrong.

In operation, once you know the code, you learn to recognize your own call.  As you practice more, you'll be able to recognize your call at several times the speed you can actually copy other things.  That's a big help when working the DXpedition.  It reminds me of the Far Side cartoon which shows a guy really scolding his dog and saying "Fido, I told you to never do that so Fido I'm going to hit you with this paper the next time you do it.  Do you understand what I'm saying Fido?"  In the next picture it shows what the dog actually hears --- "Fido ...............Fido ................. ...................Fido?"  That's the way it is with CW faster than you've learned to copy.  You can pick out your call among that other stuff, "K5LAD.................... K5LAD................ ............K5LAD"  These things get better as you learn and practice more.

The CWDecodeXP is not able to get 100% copy all the time but it does a super job and you'll not miss a lot, even if you do miss a few characters or words.  I should mention that is does a much, MUCH better job in decoding a good fist, i.e., sending that sounds good and is correctly spaced.  Some CW operators are like some singers you've heard, they sound terrible but they think they're wonderful.  The worst CW operators think their fist is among the very best.  To tell a CW operator that their sending is bad is like telling someone that they have an ugly baby --- it just isn’t done.

The good part, however, is that most operators going a speed above 10 or so WPM are more often using a keyer which can often make a mediocre fist sound good.  If it's a DXpedition and they're running faster, they are probably using a keyboard to generate the characters and the result is usually perfect code.  The program loves to decode those contacts and often copies letter perfect.

The decoder program is also helpful for you to run, even if you're trying to copy with pencil and paper.  It provides a double check on what is being sent.  I'm finding that it has also helped me in copying some code in my head.  I always envied those hams who could copy fast code in their head and know what was said.  My earlier experience had been, I could copy all the characters coming by and at a pretty good clip, but my brain only had a one-character buffer.   I copy a letter, the next one comes by and I had to throw out that previous one to take on the new one.  That makes it a little hard to follow the thread of what the other station is trying to say.  By using CWDecoderXP, I'm up to the point where I'm recognizing common words like NAME, QTH, RST, etc. and the internal buffer isn't dumping so quickly.

CW is no longer required to get a ham license.  Now you can get on CW because you WANT to and not because you HAVE to.  That’s a big difference; don’t you remember your junior high years?   Things that you wanted to do were fun; things that you had to do were……yuch!  Give CW a try and I think you’ll enjoy it.  Do you need a little help with that CW learning curve?  Give CWDecodeXP a try.  You’ll find it a real friend as you learn, or re-learn and, like the Beatles you’ll be singing, “I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends.”

Page updated 05/10/2013

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