As predicted, I have received some comments over at AmateurRadio.com, regarding the immediately preceding "Bug Fist" post. As I've stated there, and will state here again (for the record) that post was NOT intended to be about folks who are learning how to send Morse Code as a beginner. That post was supposed to be about people who know how to send good code - but don't, because they don't use a bug correctly.
But to answer a question posed over there. How does one learn to send good code in the first place?
Back in the day - back in my day, the FCC had a very nice program in place. It was called the United States Amateur Radio Novice License. It was our gateway. We learned to receive Morse Code at 5 WPM. We were restricted to "Novice sub bands". You say that sounds like a curse? Heck no! It was heaven! Imagine trying to learn how to ride a bike with other kids on the playground zooming around on ten-speeds, mountain bikes, scooters and what have you. We had a little area, set aside for us, where we could zip around on our training wheels. As we rode and rode (made QSOs) we built up our confidence and eventually shed our training wheels, and we upgraded. Oh, in the process, we fell off our bikes, and got our knees and elbows bloodied along the way. But we learned!
But as they say, "Them days are gone forever." So what's a new Ham who wants to get on HF CW supposed to do?
Several things, actually.
I am going to assume you have learned the basic Morse Code character set and that you can receive at a speed of about 5 WPM. If you haven't, you need to do that. But here's an important point - if you've learned CW, whether it be from W1AW or whatever software program - you already know what good code sounds like! You will also know, conversely, what bad code sounds like. Your assignment is to send good code.
This is where code practice oscillators come in to play. They weren't invented just to teach people how to learn to receive Morse Code, they were also invented to teach people how to send Morse Code. If you have one, fine. If you don't - get one. Or ..... you can go to your rig, and turn off the VOX while in the CW mode. This should give you a nice, big, fancy and expensive code practice oscillator. Use it. Use it a lot until you are comfortable and can send Morse Code without really have to think about forming the characters too much. As I stated over at AmateurRadio.com - use a tape recorder, or the voice recorder on your cell phone and record your sending. If you can decode what you are sending, then other people will be able to, also. If you listen to your fist and find yourself going, "What?!?", then you probably aren't ready and need to practice more. It's OK to send slowly, but accurately. Personally, I would rather listen to someone sending slowly, but correctly, rather than listening someone trying way too hard, too fast, too soon, who leaves me scratching my head. (Pssst! This is why the FISTS motto is "Accuracy transcends speed.")
Once you are reasonably confident in your sending skills, you can get on the air. The Novice subbands don't really exist anymore, but you can find some slower folks hanging around together around 7.125 MHz. The FISTS and SKCC frequencies also good places to hang - from around .050 to .058. You can ply your newly discovered skills there among friends. Don't be intimidated! Relax, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride. Remember, we're not looking for a cure for cancer or cardiovascular disease here. We're supposed to be having fun. Don't obsess and don't put yourself down. We were all beginners once, and we all had to start somewhere.
I'm going to warn you. Your first half dozen or so QSOs will be a bit nerve wracking. Best thing to do is write down ahead of time a "canned QSO". Just follow the script and before you know it, you'll feel more and more comfortable and will no longer need the script. If you try to make a QSO every day, before you know it, you'll come to recognize the experience you have gained. Your speed will increase and you will really come to enjoy this new mode you have set out to learn.
Another word of caution. There will be jerks! Sorry ..... there's nothing I can do about that. Just as on the highway, there's always that idiot that has to zoom in and out of lanes at 75 MPH, you're also going to run into jerks that think 40 WPM is beneath them and will not slow down for anyone - God included. If I may get Biblical here without offending anyone ...."Just shake their dust from your feet and go onto the next village." The speed demons who won't QRS for anyone are not worth your time or effort. I've been in this game for 36 years now, and I run into my share, too. To this day, I have to ask myself why guys send at around 55 WPM in contests only to have to repeat their exchanges multiple times, because we mere mortals can't copy their "buzz saw" CW.
Conversely ..... should you answer a CQ, do not, under any circumstances, start sending faster than you are comfortable receiving! I know, we all have a tendency to do this, but it is going to get you into trouble. You are going to get yourself into a terrible experience that will make you want to run away from Morse Code forever. Any dedicated CW op worth his salt will slow down (QRS) for a newbie. Do not be afraid to ask someone to "QRS PSE?", either. We don't know for sure that your uncomfortable unless you tell us. Sometimes, we more experienced CW ops assume too much, too.
I think I covered everything and I hope this helps those of you who are newer out there and are struggling to learn the CW ropes. If you have any questions, pop something into the comments box or send me an e-mail. I will try to help in any way I can.
There's an old joke where a stranger asks a cabbie in NY how to get to Carnegie Hall. The cabbie replies "Practice!". If you want to get good at the Morse Code game, it's going to take lots of practice. No way around it, but it doesn't have to be a chore or unpleasant. Have fun and enjoy yourself!
72 de Larry W2LJ
QRP - When you care to send the very least!