Learning morse for the RD

Two weeks ago I began my first serious attempt to learn morse code. It counts as a serious attempt because I’ve been practising every day like I need to. The great thing about the Koch method and website I’m using is that I know exactly how I’m progressing. I can say with confidence that if I keep this up for another 6 weeks I’ll be able to proficiently decode at 20 words per minute.

On the face of it this isn’t a useful hobby. Continuous wave (CW)—what amateurs normally call morse code—has an important practical advantage over voice communication, which is better range. Your 5 or 50 watts of transmission power is spread over a narrower range of Hertz. It’s similar to putting a narrower nozzle on a water hose. The pressure is higher and it travels a longer distance.

Nowadays of course we have computers everywhere. Even the cheap and tiny ones like Raspberry Pis can easily be used for digital modes like PSK31, which takes the same concept to extremes. PSK31 occupies only 31.25 Hz of bandwidth, compared with about 2500 Hz for voice, yet it can still send a couple of letters per second. My computer can decode PSK31 in situations where my ear can’t even hear the signal amongst the noise. Whatever range advantage you had with CW, a computer-assisted station can do better.

What hasn’t changed is that a CW radio is the simplest kind of radio you can make. If you fancy building your own transceiver, which I would like to do someday, or if you find yourself in a movie where you have to operate an ancient navy radio to evacuate your comrades and save the day, knowing morse code is going to make your life considerably easier.

My current motivation is more whimsical. Every August the WIA runs the Remembrance Day Contest, where amateurs around Australia and New Zealand have to contact as many other people as they can over a 24 hour period. It is a competition, but not a cut-throat one. This is good because it relies to some degree on the honesty of the participants and the geography of Australia means it isn’t a particularly level playing field anyway.

This year just for fun I would like to compete in the most underloved division, called “Single Operator QRP Mixed”. “QRP” means I can transmit a maximum of 5 watts and “Mixed” means I can use both voice and CW. Out of the hundreds of people in the RD contest it had only three participants last year and one the year before that.

Apart from the fun of competing in the category that nobody else wants to, it fits my situation well. The other week I bought my first modern HF transceiver. It’s a Yaesu FT-817ND, which is notable both for being quite cheap and for only being able to transmit 5 watts. In other words I’m competing QRP whether I want to or not. I don’t have great antenna options so voice contacts will be difficult on such low power. I’m hoping I’ll have a better shot with CW.

There is also a cohort of amateurs around the Hobart area who participate enthusiastically on VHF and UHF voice each year. I want to support them, both because it will get more points for me and because it will earn more points for my state, which is a separate award in the contest.

So that’s my rough plan: CW on HF and voice on VHF/UHF. All I need to do is finish learning morse code and set up my antennas before August 13.