Practice Makes Perfect

After spending 32 hours in the recent CQWW WPX CW contest I was a bit discouraged as I  finished the contest with 700 contacts, only to dissect the log file using SH5 when I hit upon many reasons why I did not achieve my goals. Even though I was frustrated, the contest was a success on some levels, as I wrote since I bettered my 2010 totals of final score, contacts and prefixes. On that level it was a success, but I wanted the opinion of another contester to give me advice, something the software program couldn’t accomplish.

I decided to contact Hank, W6SX who lives up in Mammoth and by his admission he doesn’t have the best set up, nor is very competitive when it comes to contesting. While his experience is measured years, he is much more fluent in decoding CW than I believe I am. After some discussion and comparison of our logs he provided some insight that I had not considered.

First and probably the most important was the lack of time I put into 40M. The low bands are the higher point bands in WPX and it was evident I did not spend enough time on 40/80M to make a dent into the totals I wanted to achieve. Part of the problem was staying awake into Saturday morning, but the other part of the equation was waking up 1-2 hours too late after a 4 hour nap. It was my hope to work 16 hours straight, but that didn’t happen. Needless to say conditions on Saturday night into Sunday morning were not as good as the previous day and unfortunately I missed many of the 6 point JA contacts.

After the first day, Hank said he only had about 500 contacts, similar to where I was after my first full day of contesting. Unfortunately with the sun going down, I faded and hank was able to collect further points. Why? Because of how we operated. Hank ran high power (1500w) and used the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN), I on the other hand, shooting for wallpaper (another term of an award) decided to run low power (100w) and unassisted, not getting the luxury the RBN or cluster, which I felt provided me the best opportunity at winning at least my call district.

Something that cannot be replaced is experience. I enjoy working CW and know Morse code, but I am still working on improving my skills. This is like many other skills, which if going unused might take some time to get back up to speed. During contests many exchanges are down at 25-30 WPM, sometimes at a fast rate. My feeling is I might struggle at trying to decode call signs at 25-30 WPM during a contest, thus part of the reason I don’t try to run a frequency and decide to search and pounce all my contacts, like I did in WPX.

The other suggestions I was given, was to use some of the upcoming summer contests as practice. He said the ARRL Field Day was a great event to use, while not an “official” contest, stations on the air will run all modes. This would allow me a chance to get on the air when many stations are participating in this event and probably be able to strength my CW skills without the worry of my performance. The second suggest was to download and install Morse Runner, which is a program that simulates a contest. After initially setting it up, you can start the program different modes from pileup to one call at a time, which improves your receiving and typing skills. Unlike myself, Hank uses this to work on while typing, but felt it would help improve my ear and decoding call signs.

His last piece of information was to set a goal to work the IARU HF World Championship that take place July 14-15. He believes 1000 QSOs is a possible goal, much like WPX was. The difference in this contest is that you are able to work CW and SSB contacts on all bands, which means that activity should be higher than it was in WPX. So between now until the start of this contest I will look to improve my skills, my goal being to improve my CW count for the 2012 CQP. I only made 41 contacts using CW last year and most all of those were calling other stations, not having those stations answer my CQ calls.

WPX on the Horizon

While May 26 is still a way out, it’s not too early to start planning for the CQ WPX CW contest. It’s one of those contests that I have really come to enjoy, next to the ARRL Sweepstakes. I find it interesting, now 3 years into contesting these two contests would top my list of “most enjoyable.” CW or Morse code wasn’t a mode I really thought of using when I upgraded without submitting to Element 1 testing, since it was dropped by the FCC. Sweepstakes, before participating, I could not understand the draw to the contest, but now 3 years later, these “messages” we exchange during the contest show the importance of traffic handling and being precise.

There is more to entering a contest than winning, especially for an operator like myself with a very modest shack and equipment compared to other stations. Unfortunately due to our remodel in 2011, I was unable to participate in the CQ WPX CW. Go back just 2 years and I posted one of my best overall performances in ANY contest to date. Again, I didn’t win the contest in my category (Single Operator, High Power, All Bands), while placing 19th out of 71 operators in that category.

The best part of this contest is that you get to work EVERYBODY! It’s also a contest where the other station’s prefix (like W6 or WD6, etc) are multipliers. If you work stations on the low bands (40/80M) they are worth double the points. If you work stations on other continents, they are worth more than if I work many domestic stations. So this is my best opportunity to score 1 million points in a contest.

John, K6MM and Dean, N6BV made a presentation back in 2010 at our May meeting of the Northern California Contest Club. After seeing the numbers as presented by K6MM and the outlook for propagation, even an operator like my could put up 1 million points. I had grand visions of that goal back in 2010, but sleep got the better of me when the sun went down. From that point on I was behind the goals I had set, unable to recover.

This year hopes to be a different story, especially if the solar weather picks up in the next month with an increase in sunspots. Regardless I will attempt to put a full weekend into contesting in order to achieve my 1 million point goal. Getting back to the band information, as long as I can stay awake, the low bands (40/80M) should be worth their points in gold. Even 6-8 hours when the sun goes does should provide me with the push I need to make 1 million points. The great think about this contest is I only need to make 27 contacts per hour and I will achieve my goal.

Currently I have working up the details on a spreadsheet I use for where my antenna will be pointing, possible contacts per band, broken down into different categories based on points. I also have to figure out a sleep schedule, which could be during the day, as opposed to night time when points are at a premium. Still some work to do before the contest arrives, but planning is always a key when it comes to contesting.


It’s been a few months now and I have been participating in the bi-monthly CWops CWT mini-tests. While my scores have not been overly impressive, it’s about the “the use of CW, whether for contesting, DXing or ragchewing.” I just filled out my bio information and paid my $12 yearly dues. I was assigned #905, which I will now use in my bi-monthly exchanges.

I am looking forward to the Contest Academy (coming soon) as well as the CW Open scheduled for August (same weekend as NAQP SSB). While my CW skills have improved, there is ALWAYS room to become more proficient. Add to that using CW on a more “regular” basis, as it is quickly becoming my favorite mode of operation, especially with a decreased outlook on solar activity.

Thanks to those who supported me for inclusion into CWops. Look forward to the enjoyment of further Morse code in amateur radio.

Learning: What works for you.

I don’t like to get caught up in arguments or debates, especially as it pertains to a hobby like amateur radio. Unfortunately individuals are unique and where opinions differ, disagreements arise.  I don’t profess to knowing EVERYTHING about amateur radio, I don’t intend to. This hobby can pull individuals in so many different directions, you are bound to find a are that is of interest.

In the past I have spent many hours logged on to amateur radio forums and it never ceases to amaze the degree of hardheadedness that occurs if your opinions varies from that of another. In 2007, the FCC eliminated the five words-per-minute Morse code examination and went to a 3-tier licensing system; Technician, General, Amateur Extra.

I’ll admit that learning Morse code was a stumbling block that had to be overcome when I was originally license in 1990. I bought cassette tapes from Radio Shack and attempted to learn code, unfortunately I did not dedicate time every day to learning. It wasn’t until this new rule went into effect that I upgraded to General and then to Amateur Extra, known by some in our hobby as a “no code Extra” as opposed to a “know code Extra.”

I did take it upon myself to use and learn Morse code after I upgraded to Amateur Extra. Even now I don’t use it in the conventional manner many dedicated CW operators do, but I do use the mode and thoroughly enjoy it. When it comes to learning Morse code opinions vary on how to learn. There are many online programs and methods on learning to use CW. I am of the opinion, use what works for you.

Many individuals try to push “their way” as the best way when it comes to learning, but if their way of learning isn’t working, logic would say to find another way that allows you to learn and progress. Yet read many amateur radio forums and there are thread upon thread and post after post that will contradict what the previous just said.

I approached amateur radio with the thought of, “the Amateur Extra is a lifetime license to learn.” I can’t say everyone will agree with that opinion, as the ham operator has moved from being a tinkerer or experimenter to an appliance operator. I will label myself somewhere in between, but probably learning a bit more to the appliance operator side than that of the experimenter. So while I didn’t need to learn to use CW, I did.

When I decided to undertake this task, I did not want to worry about having to pass more FCC exams, so I learned to use CW after I being an Amateur Extra. When I did start to learn I used a number of different programs, you can read about those on my CW page. I also decided to purchase MRP40, which I used (and still use now) as a tool when operating CW. Now the purist will say I am now a CW operator, but I am using the mode and enjoy the mode.This isn’t for everyone, especially those who took the time to learn and the mode, participating in the FCC exams to “earn” as some would term it, their General and Amateur Extra licenses. But for a new ham or someone who wants to use the mode, I think this is a great tool to assist you in learning and using the mode.

I have written about this before, in a topic titled, Why do you care? last March, which addressed this same issue. While we are all amateur operators, I see no need to label operators because of what they know or don’t or how they operate. Accept them and their approach to the hobby and if you don’t agree, then move along.Amateur radio is a great hobby! I have been thankful for being introduced to the hobby early in my childhood and while I was not pushed into the hobby or forced to learn Morse code. I am pleased with my operating habits and what I have learned over the years. Among the contest club I belong to, the NCCC, there is amazing wealth of knowledge, as well as some world class contesters and stations available.

Why do you care?

I ask this question, “Why do you care how I operate?” You shouldn’t. Unless I am causing interference, doing something malicious or illegal, then how I operate is none of your business. I bring this up because some individuals feel the need to let me know that how I operate does not make me a ham operator. Unfortunately, it’s people like this who, in my opinion, give amateur radio a bad name.

For example, the subject of Morse code is always a touchy one. More so for those OM’s who think there is one way, THEIR WAY. Thankfully technology is a wonderful thing and now learning Morse code hasn’t changed over the years, but software and programs to supplement code has. There are countless programs designed to teach you, to test you, to increase your speed and decoding. That is great! I applaud those individuals who are helping others interested learn.

Then there is the software designed, again, in my opinion to be used as a tool or resource and those are programs designed to help decoding. I will be the first to admit my decoding skills suck! Yeah, I know 15-20 minutes a day and I will improve. Thankfully my license allows me a lifetime to learn and I have many years to improve my decoding speed. Again, the OMs will claim the only decoder is the “gray matter between your ears” but I disagree.

When I started on HF, I skipped learning the code, for the same reasons many do. I did not think I could do it. Well some 12 years after I was license, under no pressure from the FCC or anyone else I took the chance, dedicate time and made an effort to learn the basics. I learned enough that I could make my way though a simple QSO at say, 5 WPM. I know not impressive, but still an accomplishment.

Unfortunately 5 WPM rarely cuts it on the HF bands. Yeah, I know there are clubs and organizations that promote CW and operators to use the mode. Hell, I even became a member of SKCC. Unfortunately, when you come across a pileup on a DXpedition, you better be ready, because it’s not easy for a newly learned CW to get a dit or dah in edgewise. Don’t even think of trying out a contest at 5 WPM.

My solution, use a tool, a decoder. Why not? Isn’t that why they were developed? I will admit I have used decoders on both occasions. When I worked XR0Y and K4M recently, I used a decoder because I could not copy at the speed they were sending. Does that make me less of an operator? Not in my eyes. Now maybe in the eyes of those OMs who are stuck in their ways from years gone by, sure. But who cares what others think! I surely don’t take their opinions of comments to heart when they claim I am not a ham.

My decoder of choice is MRP40 developed by Norbert Pieper. It has been a real workhorse for me. Whenever I tune to the CW portion of a band I start the program. Sometimes I don’t even need it, but there are other times when I won’t ask an op to QRS. It’s those times that a decoder is used as a tool. Amazingly I have had very good success using MRP40 and will continue to do.