Yes, you read the title correctly. I don’t know CW, but I have been working CW contests. For those of us who are CW-impaired there is a way to take part in CW contests and still be able to submit pretty respectable scores, all the while working on your DXCC count. Now, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I think I’m the first person to do this, because I know there are lot of stations out there who use the same basic method I do to send and receive CW during contests and when DXing. I also doubt I’m alone in the ability to work a CW contest despite being CW-handicapped. But I thought I would describe how I do it in case someone else wants to give it a try. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so I’m sure you can come up with various software/hardware combinations to do the same thing. As it turns out, I can have almost the same point and click experience using CW as I can using RTTY, and that has expanded my station’s capability and the contests I can work by a huge factor, both of which drastically increase the fun factor!
My station setup is very basic. On the hardware side, my contest transciever is a Yaesu FT-2000, and the amp is an Ameritron 811. I use a RIGblaster pro, a vibroplex bug, and of course a computer. Audio from the FT-2000 is fed from the RTTY jack to the RIGblaster, and then out via the RIGblaster’s LINE OUT connection to the computer’s LINE IN connection. The FT-2000 is connected to the computer via a serial port for rig control. The CW keying line is connected from the RIGblaster to the rear CW jack on the FT-2000, and my bug is connected to the front CW key jack. This way I can use either method of sending.
The software is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. For contest logging, I prefer to use Writelog (WL for short), and as luck would have it WL includes a very capable CW decoder. But that’s just half of the package. With WL I would be restricted to using function keys for preprogrammed messages, but I really like using a mouse to perform as many functions as I can, RTTY-style. So I picked up a neat little program called FKeys (thanks to Rick, KI1G), which allows me to configure it to send the contest info using the mouse instead of the function keys on the keyboard. Now all I have to do is type the call sign of the station I want to work and their exchange, but if I happen to be running in the Assisted category I can use WL’s Bandmap window and it’s almost all point and click after that!
Basically, the functionality of this setup works like this: Using the adjustable IF DSP filter on the FT-2000, I narrow it down to 50 Hz (that’s right, 50). This allows me to isolate the CW signal in the audio going to the software. I have found that the ability to do that is pretty critical to maximizing the CW decoder’s accuracy. The FT-2000 display includes a handy indicator that tells me when I’m zero-beat on a signal, and that is essential to the accuracy of the decoder. The decoder does include a signal display in case your rig doesn’t have that feature. On louder signals I can expand the IF width a little if I want, but in rough or crowded conditions or when receiving weaker signals, the 50 Hz filter works best, so that’s usually where I leave it. If I expand the filter a little, the decoder can also decode signals on either side of the passband’s center, although accuracy can suffer a little. When I tune in a CW signal, the decoder goes to work and displays the text moving from right to left. It takes a little getting used to but it’s easy. I should probably mention that I don’t trust the software implicitly, so I do actually listen to the information being sent. Although like I said I don’t “know” CW, it’s a lot easier to decode it when you already have a good idea of what is being sent. Once I confirm the call sign, if I want to make a contact I just click on the FKey button to send my call. WL allows me to adjust the CW sending speed so I can tailor it to the station I’m working. When the station comes back to me, I click on the exchange button and the rig sends the proper exchange. I enter the info in the log, click on the button to send my report and enter the QSO, and start searching for my next one. There are other cool features too, such as the ability to type text and send on the fly, or type ahead and send later.
A couple of words of caution. WL does not copy “slower speed” CW very well (that is, below about 15-20 WPM), and below a certain threshold it won’t copy at all. When there is a large enough gap between characters the software will insert the letter “E”, I guess because it decodes any static it hears into a “dit”. It does, however, decode CW very well at high speeds, such as one would experience in a contest. For the slow speed operators, I find I can usually decode them on my own. The other thing I’ll mention is that there is obviously a limit to how well it can decode very weak signals, so with those I’m usually on my own too.
One major drawback for some might be that this setup doesn’t work well when running stations. If you get even a couple of stations calling on frequency, the decoder gets confused. For that reason, I limit myself to S&P operation. During the ARRL DX CW contest, I worked 389 Qs in 20.5 hours of leisurely operating time, and wound up with a score of 246,729. Not bad for a guy who doesn’t know CW. But the real proof is in my error rate. I had a 1.5% error rate – that’s 4 calls and 2 exchanges copied incorrectly. I worked every band, 160M to 10M, and even picked up a couple of new countries.
So if you’re not a CW operator, you might want to give this a try. Not only does it work well in a contest but it’s great for DXing, and it’s helping me relearn CW in a way that I find to be a lot more fun.