Dave Richards AA7EE

July 24, 2009

My First SKCC QSO and 5 Watts to VK Land on 40M

One of the first things I did after completing assembly of my new KK1 straight key (my first straight key in about 15 years) was to apply for membership in the Straight Key Century Club.  There are a number of organizations designed to encourage the use of morse code amongst radio amateurs of which SKCC is one.  As the code is no longer used commercially in the developed world, and we as amateurs are the last large organized group of people to be using it, I think it’s very important that we not only preserve, but also encourage the growth of morse code usage. It is the original digital mode.

There are quite a few folk who claim that morse code is obsolete.  To back up their point of view, they cite facts such as the existence of more recent digital modes, many of which have an even greater SNR (signal to noise ratio) advantage over voice modes than CW does. Add to that the fact that morse code is no longer used commercially* (at least in the developed world) and the argument seems compelling on the surface.

I’m not about to attempt to construct an argument against the newer digital modes.   They each have their advantages and particular uses.  If you need to bounce a signal off the moon (and radio amateurs just get that strong urge to do that sometimes,) then JT65, with it’s ability to copy very weak signals, would be a fine choice.  If you want to ragchew, with it’s slow bit rate, JT65 would be a bad choice (unless you want to ragchew via the moon and have LOTS of time on your hands and the patience of Job).  You’d be much better off with Olivia or PSK-31.  I’ve been playing with WSPR recently and am quite taken with it’s ability with weak signals; I have decoded signals as weak as 30dB below the noise level with it! Truly astounding.

Thing is, just as the more modern digital modes have their specific uses, so does morse code transmitted by CW, which is pretty much the only way we radio amateurs transmit code (unless you’re talking about a repeater identification on FM). What if you’re hiking and camping and want to make contact with a minimum of equipment? Your low power signal won’t go as far if you’re using a voice mode, and all the extra gear necessary to generate and decode digital modes like PSK-31 and Olivia takes extra space. What could be simpler than a small light CW transceiver and a small morse key? It’s this combination of simplicity and effectiveness that makes CW so appealing to me (and to many others.)

I don’t want to seem like an obsessive survivalist type, but the fact that a very simple CW transceiver running on battery power can get a message out to the other side of the globe under the right propagation conditions is reason enough for me to want to keep morse code, and the CW mode of transmission, alive and thriving. Talking about the right propagation conditions, we are experiencing a deep solar minimum right now and even so, my 5 watt signal to a vertical dipole was copied by VK4TJ 11,500 km away on 40 meters last night! That’s a thing of beauty to me, and thank you John for listening for my signal.

Anyway, after signing up for, and receiving my SKCC number, I started listening and calling CQ on the SKCC elmer frequency of 7114 KHz.  No replies, but it was still a little early, and there were no signals on the band.  I came back a few hours later and called CQ a few more times.  Around 11:40pm local time, I heard a loud and very brief dit. It’s the kind of thing I sometimes do if I accidentally touch the key.  I knew that meant there was someone with a strong signal on frequency.  At that point, I can’t remember whether I then called CQ and he came back to me, or whether he called CQ and I replied, but either way, Paul N6EV became my first CW QSO as an SKCC member.  Paul (SKCC #3358) is an SKCC elmer who monitors 7114 on a regular basis and enjoys sending slow CW to help folk like me get some practice in on-air QSO’s. We QSO’ed for a few minutes short of an hour before QSB took us out.

It was my longest CW QSO ever, and the length of it gave me a chance to really get more comfortable. John, VK4TJ,  was also on frequency and commented on the SKCC sked page that he could copy both of us, even when we couldn’t copy each other. Paul and I were only about 560Km apart, wheras John was about 11,500 Km from both of us;  such is the interesting nature of radio propagation.

I stayed up for a couple more hours, heard some scuffling outside, and stepped out onto my first floor balcony to see a group of 5 raccoons staring at me from just a few feet away.

It was a magical night.

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 QSO with N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters.  VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO.  5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters to VK land.  Very exciting!

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 report from N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters. VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO. 5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters and I was copied in VK land. Very exciting! By the way - in this picture, the Buddipole is resonant on 20 meters. When on 30m and 40m it also has a loading coil.

*Ships still use lamps to communicate via morse code when maintaining radio silence.

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July 6, 2009

On CW

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 7:16 am
Tags: , , , , ,
Something recently clicked, and things between me and the iambic paddle started looking up.

Something recently clicked, and things between the iambic paddle and I started looking up.

This is my Bencher iambic paddle. I’ve had it for about 7 years now, but have yet to use it for an actual CW contact with anyone.  Come to think of it, my last CW contact was in 2001.  I had a total of 2 QSO’s on CW that year. I’ve probably had no more than 10 CW QSO’s TOTAL since being licensed back in the late 1970’s.

What the heck have I been thinking?  Maybe you don’t think this is weird. Back in the day when the code was a requirement for gaining access to the HF bands, I’m sure that many amateurs did what they had to in order to pass the test, and then promptly forgot about the code, spending their entire amateur careers using phone or digital modes.  With the exception of the approximately 10 CW QSO’s I’ve had in the last 30 years, I’m one of them.  Now that a knowledge of morse code is now not even a requirement for earning an amateur license with access to the HF bands, I have no doubt that large numbers of amateurs don’t even learn code, and don’t ever think about the possibility of learning it so that they can use it on the air.

So what is my problem?

My problem is this.  I really like the idea of morse code. I always have.  I have spent many hours since being a teenager fascinated with radio, looking at circuits and plans for homebrew QRP transmitters and transceivers,  and thinking about how beautiful the concept is of communicating over long distances with such simple, efficient transmitters. I think QRP with CW is a brilliant idea; a fabulous concept.

I just don’t use code on the air, and the absurdity of this is starting to bug me.

For a start, my amateur activity in my adult life has not been consistent.  I operate for a year or so, then become inactive for a few years; then I start up again. During the periods when I am active, I often find that I get more enjoyment from listening than I do from actually making QSO’s, so the need for a distance-busting low power wonder mode like CW doesn’t seriously rear it’s head.  I think this is the reason, I have not been seriously motivated enough to use code on a regular basis.

I didn’t have much trouble learning the code so that I could pass the standard UK amateur radio morse code test at 12 words per minute at a Post Office testing station when I was 15.  I also didn’t experience any problems getting my code up to the 20 wpm required for the US extra class license about 10 years later.  Some folk find learning very difficult if not impossible;  I wasn’t one of them.  It came fairly easily to me.  The only reason I think that I didn’t pursue the code once licensed was sheer lack of gumption.

So things are going to be different this time.  I have always wanted to build a small and light low power transceiver for 30, 40 or 20 meters and have the satisfaction of having made lots of contacts with it. I’m going to do it this time.

Oh – and the picture of the Bencher paddle at the top of this post?  I took it so that I could sell the paddle on eBay.  I had decided that paddles and I didn’t get along.  I was going to trade it in for a straight key.  Well, I am still going to get the straight key, but for some reason, I have been practising with this paddle and have realised that I really can get comfortable with using it.

I think I just found my gumption.

Don’t wish me luck.  I don’t need it; I now have gumption!

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