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Tapping it out

Jake Kennedy
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Oct 09/02) - "CQ CQ CQ DE VE8 JK"

It may look like a random scramble of letters and numbers, but to Morse code enthusiasts like Neil Sutherland it's an invitation to talk.

NNSL photo

Neil Sutherland, wearing a hat displaying his amateur radio call sign VE8CQ, is learning to "speak" in Morse code. On the blackboard behind him are the call letters for the Yellowknife Amateur Radio Club in the "dits" and "dahs" of Morse code. - Jake Kennedy/NNSL photo

"I like getting out there and talking to people all over the world," Sutherland says of his amateur radio passion.

Sutherland has spoken with people in places all over the world: Australia, Trinidad, Sweden, Mexico and South America. But he wants to talk with people in more remote places, such as Guam or the Cook Islands. That's why he's learning to speak in Morse code.

Right now, Sutherland says he's limited in how far he can go because he uses the Very High Frequency (VHF) band. In order to reach more people, he needs to use a (High Frequency) band -- but that means getting a special licence, which he must know Morse code in order to get.

"You have to have your five words a minute," he says.

Five words a minute? In a society where people use instant messages and e-mail, and many schoolchildren can type at least 30 words per minute, isn't five words per minute sort of slow?

In Morse code, each letter of the alphabet, and each number, is represented by a series of long or short beeps or tones.

Here's an example. Yellowknife, in Morse code, comes out as:

-. - - . . - - .. - - . - - -.- -. .. ..-. .

Sutherland admits that Morse code may seem sort of slow, but when you're listening to five words a minute "to distinguish your dits '.' from your dahs '-' is kind of hard."

If it's so tedious, why bother with morse code at all when you can just pick up a telephone?

"If there's a condition where you can't get voice, Morse code always goes through," Sutherland says, adding that sometimes something as simple as nightfall can interfere with voice transmissions.

To help cut down on the time it may take to spell out each word, Morse coders have invented a number of abbreviations, such as "rcv", which means received. To end a conversation. Sutherland says most operators use "sk".