First CW POTA Activation
Little known fact about me, I’m very big into amateur radio and have been for most of my life. I got my first license and callsign back in 2003 when I passed the Tech Plus exam and was given the callsign KD5WCX. My dad and grandpa were both big into amateur radio, and I took my technician exam when my dad was taking his extra. I was only 12 years old at the time, so I messed around with the hobby for about a year and then got bored and did other things. Later in my life, after going through college, I gained a renewed intered in radio and decided to get back into it.
Amateur radio is a vast hobby with lots of little niches to get into. When I got back into the hobby it was largely due to seeing people receive SSTV images (slow scan pictures over radio) that had been transmitted from the International Space Station. You can receive and decode these images with pretty minimal hardware, and before too long I had received my own pictures from the ISS. I made a couple of videos regarding these events, such as the one here. Below is an example of a received image. Lots of fun!
It didn’t take long being back in amateur radio for me to gain interest in the HF bands. Different radio “bands”, or swaths of RF spectrum, have different propogation charateristics and the HF bands are those bands that interact with the various levels of the ionosphere to propogate in really funky ways. Under various conditions, HF signals can reflect off of the ionosphere and back down towards the Earth to form “skywave propogation”, sometimes even reflecting multiple times. This reflection allows for comms over extremelly vast distances and can allow you to talk around the globe with just your radio.
Suprisingly to me in addition to becoming enamored with HF I also became enamored with CW comms. CW, or conintuous wave, is a mode of radio where the only thing that is transmitted is the signal carrier. In short this is morse code, and for radio amateurs the terms CW and morse are often used interchangably (though technically they mean different things). There’s a lot of pros to CW comms that may not be obvious to someone not into radio. For example compared to other modes of radio, the CW mode is very simple and can be accomplished with minimalist equipment. Also, for a variety of reasons, CW is much better at carrying further then other modes, and you can often get a wider area of coverage with a CW signal then you can with an equally powered signal using a different mode. But, first and foremost, CW is just cool! I don’t know what it is, but all of a sudden I heard these CW signals and saw people operating CW, and I just thought it was the coolest thing in the entire world! Obviously, for all it’s benefits, operating with CW requires learning and being proficient with morse code, which is not a small task. So I set about doing that.
Learning CW did not come easily to me at all. I could write a whole post just describing the intricacies of learning morse, but hitting the high points it’s important that you do not learn morse code with an “eye chart”, or a graph of each letter and number with it’s corresponding morse signal. Doing so will inevitably cause you to learn by counting dits and dahs, which is no good. So, for example, if you learned in this manner you may hear “dit-dah” on air, and you would say to yourself “that’s one dit, followed by one dah, which is the letter A”. This isn’t what you want. You could feasibly learn to copy CW at speeds up to around 5 words per minute this way, but after that the dits and dahs would start going so fast, and the characters following them going so fast, that you would lose the ability to count. What you want to do is learn CW “at speed”, meaning that you learn by hearing, and you do so at speeds of around 15-20 WPM. There are various methods to learn this way, and I’m not going to talk about them here, but it’s important to learn this way to prevent a pretty severe “speed block”, and to keep yourself from having to unlearn bad habits.
In addition to frustrations experienced in learning CW, I also had frustrations in getting an HF set up. You see, operating HF radio requires having HF antennas, or antennas that are able to trasmit and receive signals within the HF band. HF signals are very low in frequency compared to VHF or UHF radios, and it is a rule of radio that how physically “big” or long your antenna must be is inversely proportional to the frequency that you want to transmit on. So maybe you’ve used an FRS “bubble pack” radio before with it’s short little antenna on top. Compare this to an antenna for the 40 meter HF band, which is generally about 20 meters long in physical size. As you see, if you want to operate HF radio you usually need a couple of very big antennas. My family and I have moved multiple times in the past five years, and for almost the entire time, including now, we’ve been living in houses that are in HOAs. HOAs do not like HF antennas.
This January while I was making my yearly goals I set a couple of different goals for myself regarding radio. Namely, I wanted to find a way to make an HF radio setup at my house, so that I could get on the HF bands more routinely. Then, I wanted to finally get comfortable with CW, enough so that I could make a couple of CW contacts on air. And finally, I wanted to get my comfort with CW to the point where I could complete a POTA activation with only CW. I accomplished the last of these goals today.
Activating POTA can be a little nerve wracking, even if it’s just over voice. It wasn’t until I got into POTA that I learned what it was like to be on the other side of a pile up, and even with voice it can get the heart racing a little bit to decompile all of that. The thought of making an activation with just CW actually kind of scared me. I had been practicing my CW religiously, practicing every day for most of this year, and had meant to get CW into one of my activations earlier this year. But I found that when I was inside the park and doing the activation, my goal was to complete the activation, and it was too easy to justify not switching to CW since I had “more pressing” things to attend to.
So today I decided to activate a park using nothing but CW. I was either going to make 10 contacts with CW, or I wasn’t going to make them at all. To motivate myself to stick to this, I didn’t take a microphone with me to the park. I just left it at home, that way the only way I had to communicate via radio at the park was with morse code. I picked Monte Sano National Park since it’s local to me, it’s a close drive, and I’ve activated it before so I know a couple of good spots for antenna placement and set up. I had been watching K4SWLs videos religiously for most of the year, so I had written down the standard QSO format, the “park to park” (P2P) QSO format, and I had also spent many a night listening to K4SWLs videos and following a long with his rx to build confidence in being able to do this myself.
Long story short, I made it! The bands weren’t fantastic today by any means, and I only made 10 QSOs, but 10 is the required number! From Alabama I made contacts into Texas, Maine, Idaho, Massachusettes, Colorado, and New York! I was operating around 14 WPM for most of the time. During my first contact of the day (N4SMO, thank you sir) I was a little nervous and was “pen and paper copying” where I wrote every symbol down, but amazingly by the fourth contact I no longer felt the need to write everything down and just took notes and copied in my head. With the fifth contact (KJ7DT) I had a little confusion, since I was positive I understood his call and then I thought he sent a call that was different, so I called him back to ask him his call again, and he straight up responded with his call again! I know this doesn’t sound like much, and I have supreme gratitude in him for responding to my undoubtedly frustrating call, but the fact that we did something off script and that he responded, and that I requested properly and he returned properly… I dunno, I just never thought that I would be able to do that! Gah! Such an amazing day of CW! For the 10 people that suffered through QSOs with me, thank you so much! I couldn’t possibly express my extreme gratitude to the chasers that make this whole thing possible!
My “gear list” of what I took to Monte Sano to activate with is below:
- Xiegu G90 Transceiver
- Bioenno Power LiFePO4 12Ah Battery
- PAR End Fedz LNR Precision 10/20/40 Antenna
- 3D Printed Paddles from CW Morse, actual model is discontinued
This is an extremelly long post and I’m not sure who the target audience is, but if you have any confusion just know that today I feel like I accomplished an immensely difficult task and came out ahead. I’ve put some pictures below of my POTA setup on Monte Sano today, to help commemorate the event. Thank you everyone who has read this far!