The name of the sail seems to have come from the time it was first hoisted in a race in June 1865 aboard the yacht Niobe, whose owner, William Gordon, had a sailmaking business in Southampton (see Mariner's Mirror, 51 (1965) 355). It was called a ‘niobe’ by the crew, but the racing skipper Tom Diaper, whose grandfather was the professional skipper aboard Niobe that day, wrote in his memoirs in 1950 that one of the crew remarked, ‘that's the sail to make 'er spin’, and that Gordon reversed this comment to give the sail the name ‘spin-maker’. The following year the owner of the yacht Spinx hoisted a similar sail which her crew dubbed a ‘spinker’ much as it had been called a ‘niobe’ the year before. The two words appear to have become combined so that when the word first appeared in print later that year it was spelled ‘spiniker’, and was not spelled as it is now until 1869.
However, the sail may have been invented well before this. In his well-known book Down Channel, the single-handed yachtsman Richard McMullen (1830–91) wrote: ‘In 1852, contemplating longer passages, I gave Leo a topmast; and in 1855, wanting more sail for running before a light wind, I invented a sail which for want of a better name I called [a] studding-sail, but which was known about twelve years later as a spinnaker, when it came into use among larger yachts for match-sailing. It is made of very light material in the form of a jib, and sets from the topmast head to the deck where it is boomed out like a squaresail. As it is a sail that endangers the topmast, except in the lightest winds, I discarded it in 1864.’
Since its first appearance many variations of the spinnaker have been tried out. At first the sail was shaped like a foresail, with only a moderate amount of flow or bulge in the belly, but with the introduction of synthetic fibres, such as Terylene, nylon, Dacron, etc., spinnakers began to be cut with a deep curve or roach in the foot, and a great deal of flow in the belly. So full was this amount of flow in some of these sails that they quickly earned the name of parachute spinnakers. During the 1930s sailmakers also experimented with the effect of having a large hole, or multiple holes, in the sail, sometimes known by British yachtsmen during the inter-war period as ‘Tom Ratsey's peepholes’ after the English sailmaker of that name who produced them. These holes were incorporated to create a steady flow of air and prevent the wild gyrations that some spinnakers were prone to when running before a freshening breeze. In the early 1970s the star-cut spinnaker, also called a reacher, was introduced which could be used as close as 45° to the wind and was better than an ordinary spinnaker when running in heavy weather. Another innovation was the all-round or radial spinnaker. Radial refers to the layout of the panels making up the sail. These make it more stable in a strong wind and especially good when reaching. A more recent development is the asymmetrical spinnaker, also known as an A-sail, or the trademarked Gennaker. This is a reaching or cruising spinnaker where the sail is longer on one leech than on the other. It is made of very lightweight cloth, and is set when reaching, often without a spinnaker pole.
Subjects: Maritime History.