Barriers To Sending and Receiving Faster CW

I’ve been pretty comfortable with sending and receiving code at about 15 wpm for the best part of a year now.  I write down all my copy as I receive it, and always send with a straight key – the KK1 from American Morse Equipment. This arrangement has worked quite well and when I think back and realize that my first CW QSO (not counting the only half-dozen or so I’ve had since being licensed in 1978) was just 18 months ago I feel quite pleased.  The idea of having any CW QSO at all was foreign to me – the few that I had had before were a struggle to get through. Admittedly many of my QSO’s are cookie cutter ones with the standard exchange of RST, QTH, rig, antenna, power and perhaps a mention of what the weather is like.  We might chat a little bit about something else before signing off. That is all that many CW ops want out of a QSO and to be frank, it’s often all that I want too.

Sometimes when I want to get a little more conversational though, I’m prevented from it by two things. Firstly, you can only transmit so many words to the other operator in a certain amount of time at 15wpm or below. If you try to say too much, it just takes too long and gets boring for both ops. The other barrier is that I haven’t been thinking in code; I consciously hear the sounds and translate them into letters (or occasionally, complete words).  When sending, I go through the mental process of thinking what I want to say and translating it into code before sending it.  I think it’s this mental barrier that is preventing me from sending and receiving more swiftly – well, that and the fact that sometimes I just don’t have that much to say 🙂

This morning I called CQ on 7030 and was excited to receive a call from Don W6JL.  As you know from this previous post, he is well known to me and though I’ve had many opportunities to call him, I haven’t, as I knew he’d probably find copying my max speed of around 15-18wpm tedious at best.  He’s also very comfortable being conversational on the paddle, and I am not, so I just didn’t want to put him through the experience of a QSO with me.

Donald asked me why I was using a straight key, and I replied that I’ve been practicing with the paddle, but it keeps running away with me! I haven’t yet mastered the art of sending “s” instead of “h”, or “b” instead of “6”, for example! I tried sending to him with the paddle, but things got a bit out of hand and I reverted to my comfort zone with the straight key. One important thing that Donald managed to persuade me to do was to throw away the piece of paper I was using to write all my received copy on and start learning to copy CW in my head.

After giving it some thought, I think that the main reason I’m having trouble copying in my head is that at 15wpm or below, I’m not thinking of the code as a series of thoughts and ideas, but as a series of words that I have to string together in my head before I can make sense out of them.  Invariably I find that by the time I’m at the end of a sentence, I’ve forgotten the words that were at the beginning, and so the meaning is lost. If I keep working on my speed, I think that by the time I’m copying at 25wpm+  I’ll naturally be listening to the code as a series of thoughts without having to consciously translate them.

It was a pleasure to QSO with Donald though I’m looking forward to doing so when I can communicate more at his level of speed and fluidity. His station is all home-brew and utilizes a phasing-type high performance direct conversion receiver with a Dan Tayloe-designed front end. He runs full QSK and hasn’t found a commercially-produced rig that gives the performance he gets from his homebrew station.  Although it’s not the most up to date version, you can read about his station and see pictures of it here. Don made an interesting point about transmitter power to me. He uses a 2 element yagi for 40M.  On first reading that sounds impressive, but he pointed out that this gives him just 4dB of forward gain. Now anything that gives you gain is a help of course, but if you want to make your signal easier to copy in the other guy’s receiver, the easiest way to do it is to increase your transmitter power. This pre-supposes that you have already got yourself a decent antenna as high and in the clear as you can manage; it would be a bit silly to run a kilowatt into a random length of wire on the floor of your shack.

Let’s look at power for a minute.  Say that you are running the QRP “full gallon” power of 5W.  If you double your power to 10W, that gives you a 3dB increase in power, or 1/2 an S-point in the other guy’s receiver.  Doubling again to 20W gives you 6dB – a full S-point.  Doubling two more times to 80W gives you 2 full S points. Most commercial transceivers put out 100W when running barefoot (and so does the Elecraft K2 with the 100W option – the object of my current desire.)

OK, so you decide that you want a bit more power.  Double that 80W 2 more times to 320W and you now have a 3 S point advantage over your original 5W. This means that running the full legal limit of 1500W will give you a little more than a 4 S point advantage over the original 5W signal.  4 S points doesn’t sound like much in return for that whopping amplifier you are now running, and when propagation is well in your favor, it probably isn’t but let’s face it, the propagation gods haven’t exactly been smiling on us recently have they? (I know, things have been better, but there’s still room for improvement.)  4 S points means that the guy who would have given up trying to copy your 219 signal now finds that you are 559 – a big difference.

Goshdarnit – how did I go from thinking I never wanted to run more than 5 watts to dreaming of how nice it would be to have, say, a 500 watt amp?

Anyway, the call from W6JL this morning and the resulting QSO gave me the kick in the pants that I need to get more serious about upping my CW speed and also gave me food for thought about the eventual possibility of upping the power here at AA7EE.


One thought on “Barriers To Sending and Receiving Faster CW

  1. Hi Dave, I recently finished my 30m SST (with a 5 watt after-burner, blog post in preparation) and I am enjoying using it, making those first dozen or so QSOs. Last night whilst lounging around the shack I worked Lou VK5EEE in Adelaide. Lou is a lifelong CW man. In his remarkable story ( he has a link to W6JL. I knew that call was familiar… I have a box collecting the parts for the W6JL amp in the shack. The local VK3 SOTA boys have built two of them at least ( When I googled W6JL your page came up. Six degrees and all that! I agree with your comments on CW, I am just keeping up at 12-15wpm, even so, its quite a different experience to phone. 73 Paul VK3HN.

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