A recent topic of discussion on QRP-L prompts me to write a few words and vent my spleen a bit. This topic comes up every so often on various discussion lists and usually turns into a free for all, with people weighing in on both sides of the argument. And what is this earth-shaking topic of discussion? Of course, I’m speaking of the quality of sent Morse code heard on the HF bands.
The argument usually starts with one or more old timers (apparently defined as having been a ham since Moby Dick was a minnow) lamenting how poorly newcomers to the hobby send code, particularly with a straight key or bug, and they’re just unable to copy much of anything they send so they go elsewhere to find their 30+ WPM rag chews.
Others jump in to defend the newcomers and point out that they represent the future of CW on the airwaves, and that they deserve to be cut some slack and perhaps even be elmered by the old timers. The discussion then degenerates into a general condemnation of operating habits by the newcomers and an apparent desire to turn back the clock to the days when “real hams” sent perfect code and practiced several hours a day to make sure no errors ever crossed their key. A few days later, things settle back down until the next SKCC or other event brings out hordes of the dreaded noobs.
Whenever I see these posts start to appear, I’m in awe of the level of skill possessed by the old timers. They apparently learned Morse code before they were old enough to read and have the uncanny ability to send high quality code using nothing more than 2 bare wires rhythmically touched together. This kind of superhuman ability always reminds me of the posts where a ham talks about receiving a kit and having it built and operational in just a few hours. “UPS dropped off my K2 this afternoon and I made my first QSO with it after supper”. I exaggerate, but I’m sure you’ve seen similar posts.
I don’t doubt that there are hams who legitimately possess these exemplary CW skills but, to those like me who struggle mightily to reach even minor proficiency, stories like these are demoralizing at best. In fairness, I also don’t doubt that there are hams whose fists are, shall we say, less than stellar. I know I certainly fit into that category on occasion. Some of the complaints are likely justified, but there seems to be more than a whiff of attitude in many of them. Let me use myself as an example of the type of ham who might get bashed by the CW mavens out there.
I learned to send and receive at 5 WPM in order to obtain my Novice license in 1986. A few months later and before I’d ever been on the air, I passed my Technician test, got interested in VHF packet radio, and never looked back at a key. Sometime around 2000, I was grandfathered in for my General license when the code requirement was lowered to 5 WPM. I’d now met all of the requirements since the Technician and General written tests were the same prior to the introduction of the no-code Technician license in 1987. Since packet was pretty much dead by then, access to the HF bands was a blessing as it rekindled my interest in ham radio. A few years later, I passed my Extra exam - again with only having passed a 5 WPM code test and never using the code on the air.
When I became interested in QRP, I realized that CW was the lingua franca of the QRP community because of the low power levels involved and relative efficiency of CW. I needed to learn CW! A few months of practice using Chuck Adams’ superb code disk distributed by FISTS provided me with the ability to copy Morse at 10-12 WPM, a speed I’ve not appreciably increased since. I think the main reason for this is that I primarily use it only during various contests and field events. In most cases, the exchange is predictable and I can concentrate on copying the necessary elements during previous contacts. Once I have them down, that’s when I’ll throw out my call. This naturally leads to using search and pounce techniques almost exclusively, as invariably I’ll send out a 12 WPM CQ and someone will come back at 25-30 WPM. It gets tiresome to continually send ? or QRS PSE, so I soon retreat back to S&P.
When I want a rag chew, I go to the digital modes as PSK31 is also exceptionally efficient at low power levels. I know this doesn’t help me to improve my CW skills, but reading about how much those who are proficient at Morse dislike those of us who aren’t cluttering up the airwaves just doesn’t provide much incentive to get on the air with my trusty Bencher. My proficiency is on a keyboard. I learned to type in high school and, like many, use a keyboard extensively in my job. In high school in 1969, I was timed at 60 WPM on a manual typewriter. I’m pretty sure that I can now operate a keyboard all day long at well over 100 WPM. This all came pretty naturally to me, as I don’t recall struggling to learn to type as opposed to what I’ve gone through to learn CW. Still, I understand that not everyone has an innate ability to touch type.
There are areas of agreement between us. Just like the CW operators who complain about the contest-style QSOs they encounter, I’m not a fan of the macro-driven QSOs one commonly finds with the digital modes. I had one QSO where, after the obligatory brag files were exchanged, I mentioned a little bit about the area where I live and asked about his. His response was that he "practiced catch and release on PSK31", hoped to see my call on his screen again in the future, and signed off. Why he hoped to see me on his screen again was a mystery to me. Maybe he wants to bore me again with his brag file?
Fortunately, there are still those who enjoy spending at least a few minutes typing back and forth and talking about something other than what computer and digimode software they are using right down to the last detail. And, just like the CW operators who complain about the quality of code being sent, I get a bit frustrated when I see someone on my screen who is obviously a hunt and peck typist with frequent backspacing to correct errors. And then I remember why I’m on the digital modes instead of CW and smile. I’m just happy that there are still those who want to communicate and not just make contacts, no matter how painful it might be for them. They’ll get better, and some of them just might be the CW old timers who are trying to learn something new and different. My best wishes to them and I wish that they felt the same way about hams like me.