Skip to main content Link Search Menu Expand Document (external link)

Last week I made my first confirmed contact using Morse code (CW)

One of my goals when returning to amateur radio after a long break was to learn Morse code so that I could operate in CW. CW stands for continuous wave. CW is how amateur radio operator refer to morse code operation because each dot or dash sent is an unbroken Continuous Wave.

Photo of a Morse Code key for ham radio

CW operation is incredibly efficient in terms of power used and signal propagation. In CW mode, each dot or dash sent is at maximum power and exists within a narrow band of 500 Hertz. For comparison, an AM signal occupies about 10,000 Hertz of bandwidth and therefore requires more transmission power. And a single side-band signal (SSB) about half that (5,000 Hertz).

One reason I returned to amateur radio after 15 or so years was because I stumbled across some videos of operators using CW with small radio powered by a 9 volt batteries. I couldn’t believe they were making contacts over huge distances with such small radios. My son was getting into Scouts and camping; I thought that it would be a lot of fun to bring a radio camping and try it out myself.

Setting goals

After I’d learned the alphabet, numbers and useful punctuation I asked myself, “What’s next?” How good do I need to be at Morse code recognition to try and get on the air and do it for real? I set a personal goal of being able to decode call signs at 25 WPM. When I do that, I thought, I’ll be ready to get on the air and operate CW.

About two weeks ago, I achieved 25 WPM call sign decoding on the Learn CW Online website.

Screenshot of Learn CW Online call sign decode scores showing a 25wpm decode

I purchased a straight key from cwmorse.us. When it arrived, I connected it to my Xiegu G90 and got on the air.

Taking the leap

Operating CW on the air is a lot more difficult than simulated drills. The tones aren’t as crisp and clear; you’re hearing them amidst static, operators send in varying cadences and my brain has a hard time keeping up with a constant stream of code with no breaks. Although I can achieve a decode speed of above 20 WPM in simulations, I am probably operating between 10 and 15 WPM over the air.

Although I can achieve a decode speed of above 20 WPM in simulations, I am probably operating between 10 and 15 WPM over the air.

Everyone has to start somewhere. I couldn’t do drills forever and many friends online were encouraging me to just begin.

Parks on the Air formula for CW contacts

I have mainly focused on hunting Parks on the Air (POTA) activators because these exchanges are quick and formulaic. Also, I can use the POTA website to learn their call sign ahead of time. Then I only need to tune into their frequency and listen for their call. I respond with my own call sign, my state and provide a signal report.

POTA CW exchanges are easy for beginners because they follow a short formula and the POTA site provides the caller’s call sign beforehand.

I’ve been using the following “formula” as a CW POTA hunter:

Activator: CQ CQ CQ POTA [activator call]
Hunter (me): W1YTQ
Activator: W1YTQ GM UR 599 599 BK
Hunter (me): GM UR 599 599 MA MA 73 BK
Activator: TU ES 73 DE [activator call] K
Hunter (me): K

The formula above translates to:

Activator: I'm POTA hunter [activator call] looking for anyone out there
Hunter (me): Hello, I'm W1YTQ
Activator: W1YTQ, good morning, you have a strong signal
Hunter (me): Good morning. Your signal is strong in Massachusetts, good luck
Activator: Thank you and good luck from [activator call]

As you can see from the quick exchange above, I only need to provide my own call sign, a signal report and my state. The formula varies a bit but POTA CW activations are short and the POTA site provides information beforehand to help me along.

I found this YouTube video that walks through POTA exchanges really helpful. If you watch the video you can see there is more nuance to POTA exchanges than what I describe above. But I really needed to keep it simple to get started.

First confirmed CW QSO

A POTA hunter, KG8SO, finally confirmed a QSO with me from Hillcrest State Gameland in Michigan.

Screenshot of POTA website showing a confirmed CW contact between W1YTQ and KG8CO

Seeing a hunter’s POTA log with my call sign as a CW contact was better than any award. I have a long way to go but that first contact is the culmination of about a year of learning CW alone.

My history with CW

Back when I first got my amateur radio ticket in 1992 (a Novice license) as KA1ZPR, a minimum 5 words per minute morse code test was required. I listened to some cassette tapes that played dots and dashes then spoke a letter. I think I barely made the requirement. Then I never thought about code again. I focused on VHF operations in FM mode.

I don’t remember ever seeing my grandfather, Fred Bean, operate CW. He must have been pretty good at it given his time in the Army’s Signal Corps.

Learning Morse code

In late 2022, about this time last year, I began learning Morse code again. It’s much easier now than when I was first learning at the age of 18, thirty years ago. Rather than cassette tapes you can use mobile applications and online resources. Three resources that I used were:

  • Morse Mania - I recommend this mobile app to start because it teaches morse code
  • Morse Machine - I still use this mobile app to drill myself and improve my individual letter recognition
  • LCWO (Learn CW Online) - An internet site I use for advanced drills like call-sign decoding

Going forward

I have so much to learn in this space. I know that my CW operation is slow and rough. But I reached a point where I needed to get on the air and do it. I need to be patient with myself. I make a lot of mistakes but that’s okay.

Actually getting on the air has increased my motivation to learn and continue practicing.