TeamUSA at the 2009 World High Speed Telegraphy Championships
Ken Low, KE3X
Five Americans go head-to-head with the best telegraphers in the world.
The 2009 World High Speed Telegraphy (HST) Championships were held September 11-15 in Obzor, Bulgaria. While HST has historically been an Eastern European sport, teams from several new countries entered this year including Mongolia and the United States. Although we lost three of our youngest team members who scratched due to school or other conflicts, we still fielded a five person team consisting of our Captain Barry Kutner, W2UP; Ilya Kleyman, KE7OPG; Gary Schmidt, W5ZL; Ken Low, KE3X, and Kody Low, K3ODY. Barry and Ilya were returning to HST competition for the second time but for the rest of us, it would be our first experience.
My interest in HST had begun 6 months earlier, when I dusted off my CW skills after 15 years of inactivity. I bought a new N3ZN key (based on the recent QST review, of course) then challenged my teenage sons to get their amateur licenses, learn Morse code and try HST with me.1 After posting some respectable scores to the Rufz Toplist and sharing e-mails on strategy with my teammates, I figured “OK, I’m ready. How tough can this be, anyway?” Well, I was about to find out.
We arrived in Obzor on Friday, September 11 along with 150 other competitors, coaches and guests to discover a beautiful Black Sea resort setting. The Miramar Hotel was only half full, but the special event station LZ8WHST was already on the air with a Elecraft K3 transceiver, ACOM amplifier and tribander on the hotel roof overlooking the salt water. It was clear our hosts from the BFRA (Bulgarian Federation of Radio Amateurs) had been planning ahead.
Friday night was our first taste of the “Olympic Games” flavor of the World HST competitions, with the opening ceremonies showcasing all 14 participating nations with their national flags flying. Our brand new “TeamUSA” shirts were quickly lost in a sea of colorful Olympic-style warm-up suits worn by the Belarus and Russian competitors and (of course) the Italian team who looked sharpest of all. Hmmm, we thought — maybe these folks are serious!
As a quick background, an HST competition is divided into three types of events — Transmitting, Receiving and Practicing Tests — held over a 2 day period. Competitors are divided into five age groups: both Men and Women’s divisions have “Under 16,” “Under 21,” “Under 40” and “Over 40” divisions, plus an additional “Over 50” division on the Men’s side. Each country can field up to 2 competitors per division, for a total of 18 competitors. So even with our 5 person squad, we were already outmanned by the Belarus, Russian and Romanian teams, all of whom had close to full rosters. Comparisons between this year’s US HST team and the Jamaican Bobsled team of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics were inevitable.
Day 1: MorseRunner and Transmitting
On Saturday morning, the competitions began. Barry and Gary headed off to their Receiving Tests, while Ilya, Kody and I were assigned the same bracket and drew MorseRunner, one of the Practicing Tests, as our first event. We noted our starting times, then did a few practice runs on our laptops to warm up before entering the testing room. In contrast to the standard WPX Mode used for the Internet Toplist, HST contestants use HST mode, in which a pileup of four stations are continuously calling. After you log a station, another one immediately arrives to replace it. This would be ideal, of course, if all four were always perfectly spaced out by 150 Hz and had different call sign lengths, but of course it’s never that simple.
Perhaps due to our backgrounds in CW contesting, MorseRunner turned out to be the best event for TeamUSA. Barry took the Silver Medal in Category I while Ilya and I posted the second and fourth best scores in a tight Over 40 class where seven competitors scored in a 150 point range.
But all our efforts were dwarfed when Ilya Getzov, LZ4UU, from Bulgaria blew away the previous World Record with an unbelievable 4330 points. Doing some quick math, that’s 72 contacts in a 10 minute period at an average of 60 WPM or about 8 seconds per contact at a rate of 430 per hour, all copied through nonstop four station interference. As recently as 1 year ago, it was conventional wisdom that 4000 points was approaching the practical human limit, but already the top competitors are adjusting their training strategies and you can bet they’ll be gunning for 4500 points in 2010.
Our next event was Transmitting (TX), at which I thought: “This’ll be easy, I’ve been sending CW since I was 12 years old — piece of cake.” In Transmitting, the objective is to send as many five character groups as possible in 60 seconds. You do this three times in a row — for Letters, Figures and Mixed characters, where mixed means all the letters, figures and five punctuation marks (= , . / ?). If you make an error (and with three International Class Referees staring at you, you surely will) you have two options: either A) send 6 dits and repeat the group, or B) accept a 5% score reduction and keep going. But here’s the catch: after three uncorrected errors, your run ends even if the 60 seconds aren’t up yet. So after you make your first error, in the words of Clint Eastwood, “You gotta ask yourself one question — do you feel lucky?”
I got through my Transmitting Letters and Mixed well enough, but in Figures I ran into a brick wall labeled “97567.” Sending at a conservative 48 WPM, I left off a single dit on the last 7. Okay, no problem, I’m only 18 seconds into the run and I don’t want to burn a 5% penalty too early, so I’ll just repeat it. Second try: same error again, last digit. Now it’s crunch time — do I take the 5% penalty and keep going? No, stay cool, let’s try one last time. Third time: different error, same digit. Those 10 seconds would cost me a full place in the Overall standings. As they say, “It’s a game of seconds.” Noting my sheepish expression after the run, one of the Referees offered gently but matter-of-factly: “Rookie mistake using the dual-lever paddle, kid: the pros use single-lever for Figures.” Thankfully, Ilya captured the third medal for TeamUSA with scores of 220, 230 and 140 characters.
Day 2: Rufz and Receiving
After a good night’s sleep, a quick morning jet-ski and buffet breakfast with the team, it was time for Day 2 of the competition, which meant the second Practicing Test: Rufz. Rufz (pronounced “ruffs”) is short for “Rufzeichen-Hören,” which in German means “listening to call signs.” At HST, you get two attempts to copy 50 call signs as accurately as possible and the higher score counts. But here’s the trick: if you get a call sign right, the speed increases, so the next call sign becomes harder to copy. There would be no medals for TeamUSA in this event, as we all scored 10-15% below our personal bests.
Meanwhile, in the next room, Fabian Kurz, DJ1YFK, from Germany (well known internationally — check out his YouTube videos) came within 500 points of setting a new Rufz World Record as he grabbed the Gold medal with a score of 194,038. For the rest of us mortals, that’s an average of close to 800 CPM (CPM is real characters per minute), or almost 200 WPM across 50 call signs. To me, Morse code at 800 CPM sounds like a 20 millisecond burst of static.
Finally, it was time for the Receiving (RX) tests. Do you remember those old film clips from the 1940s where the 50 Army Signal Corps cadets sit together learning Morse code with headphones clamped on their ears? That’s the idea, but at an HST competition, the speed starts at 50 CPM and keeps rising in 10 character increments until it exceeds 300 CPM and the last competitor throws in the towel. Like Transmitting, Receiving is scored in three separate categories (Letters, Figures and Mixed) and the highest speed you can log in 1 minute with no more than 5 errors counts as your score. Interestingly, the top competitors don’t even bother to put their headphones on until the speed hits around 180 CPM, in order to protect their perceptive listening capacity at the highest speeds. This year, the top receiving speeds in CPM were 300 Letters, 310 Figures and 220 Mixed with a <1% error rate.
But here’s the $64,000 question: what do you copy with? A laptop, external keyboard, longhand writing or shorthand? Four months earlier, I had decided on an external keyboard, figuring my touch-typing skills would increase in parallel with my “head copy” as my abilities improved. Wrong again! If you QLF (make typing errors) early in a 1 minute RX run over 110 CPM, you’ll never recover. There’s simply no time to hit backspace and fix it and by the time the run is over you’ll have forgotten where the error was. As it turns out, most of the top RX competitors use shorthand and some even develop their own custom shorthand systems. In this event Ilya (using shorthand of course) won a Bronze medal, while Barry got a certificate for sixth place.
On the final day, after a day trip to a historical palace near the Romanian border, we had the final closing ceremonies and awarding of team medals and individual overall medals. Ilya picked up a Bronze for the US in the Over 40 overall classification to raise the total TeamUSA medal count to five. No surprises on the team scores, as Belarus, Russia and Romania took home the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals respectively. TeamUSA placed ninth out of 14 teams — a respectable showing for our first real team effort, as we took home the first medals ever for any team outside Europe. But next time we’ll need more Under 40s and some female ops.
Overall, the trip was great fun and we came away with an appreciation for how HST is considered a legitimate national competitive sport in Eastern Europe, similar to how chess, math competitions and Lego robotics are viewed in the United States. Also we saw that HST in Eastern Europe is popular for all the right reasons: it’s fun, it develops concentration and mental stamina, it tests performance under pressure and it’s implemented in a supportive team setting where the top talent can represent their countries on an international stage. All the competitors and referees were generous in their suggestions on how to improve our skill level. My favorite tidbit of advice? “Becoming a World Champion is simple: practice Morse code 1 hour per day, then repeat for 10 years.”
Our thanks go out to the BFRA for hosting an outstanding event, to our team shirt sponsor WXØB Array Solutions and to Krassy, K1LZ, for assisting with ground transportation. Congratulations to Barry and Ilya on their medals and to Kody for finishing sixth after only 3 months of training. Kody’s comment after the weekend: “That was cool. How about going to Germany in 2011?”
For HST software, go to www.rufzxp.net, www.dxatlas.com/MorseRunner and www.lcwo.net. All those free Web sites have training tools and ladders where you can challenge yourself and develop your skills. Additional TeamUSA sponsors are welcome, particularly to help defray travel expenses. If you are interested in learning more about the US HST Team, contact Barry Kutner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 B. Prior, N7RR, “High End Dual-Lever Keyer Paddles,” QST, Mar 2009, p 52
All photos courtesy of Ken Low, KE3X
Ken Low, KE3X, an ARRL member, was first introduced to ham radio at age 12 by his great-uncle Bob Fairchild, K4FG (SK) one of the original pre-1947 “Spark Ops” who built his first radio when he was 15 years old in 1921. In 1974 Ken passed his Novice exam to become WN1UUA. In 1975 he upgraded to General and became WA1UUA. In 1977 he obtained his Advanced license upgrading to Extra class in 1981 as NV1P. From 2007-2009 Ken lived 20 km northeast of Geneva, Switzerland in the farm town of La Rippe. He operated as HB9/KE3X along with his sons K3PAL, K3ODY and KB3SPI. Ken likes HF contesting (DX contests, Sprints) and high speed telegraphy. He also participates in SOTA (Summits on the Air) and holds CWOps #460.
Ken’s equipment is an ICOM IC-735 100 W transceiver, a Transworld TW1010 Adventurer portable antenna and a 40 meter dipole at 20 feet.
Ken works for UBS Financial Services, Inc in Washington, DC. His wife’s name is Ann and they have four sons the oldest three of which are hams. Ken can be reached at 5424 Sherier Pl NW, Washington, DC 20016-2562