Brief History

Spinnakers have been around for almost 150 years. In fact, the early spinnakers were first used on the Solent, that storied strip of water between mainland England, and the Isle of Wight off the country's south coast. In the mid-1800s, dozens of yachts could be seen racing on the Solent, and the competition was as keen then as it's ever been. Any edge that could be gained might mean the difference between winning and losing, and sailors tried everything they knew to be competitive. While living in Cowes on the Isle of Wight in the late 1970s, I heard a theory that the first spinnaker was designed and built by a local sailmaker by the name of William Gordon. The sail was used on his yacht Niobe, and with it Gordon had many successes. The sail was made from cotton and was more like a fat-bellied genoa than the round spinnaker of today. In fact, the first spinnakers were asymmetrical. The story goes that when the sail was first set one of the crewmen commented that it was sure to make the boat "spin," or go fast in the language of the day. The sail was soon dubbed the spin-maker which later became spinnaker.

Spinnakers add fun and color to sailing.

Spinnakers add fun and color to sailing.

A second theory, however, credits the origin of the name to Mr Gordon's archrival, a man by the name of Herbert Maudslay who owned a yacht called Sphinx. For a while these new sails were named after the boat names, with the one on Gordon's boat being called a "niobe," and the one on Maudslay's boat being called a "sphinx." Word has it that the crew bastardised the word sphinx to spinker, and eventually to spinnaker. I can't comment on the authenticity of either of these theories, but they are interesting stories none the less.

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