150th anniversary of the spinnaker sail

David Frost talks about the history behind the spinnaker sail, now forever associated with the tower at Gunwharf Quays

Monday, 14th March 2016, 6:18 am
Sphinx winning the Albert Cup in 1866
Sphinx winning the Albert Cup in 1866

The tower has fast become a symbol of the city of Portsmouth, but few know how deep its roots are.

A century-and-a-half ago the newly founded Royal Albert Yacht Club was at the heart of the keenest competition in sail racing.

The cutter yachts, huge by our present standards, were at the forefront of design.

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Two leading members were experimenting with a revolutionary sail and they competed for the coveted Albert Cup.

In 1865 it was won by William Conway Gordon in his 40-ton Niobe. In that year he was said to be conducting trials with a full-bellied foresail.

In 1866 HC Maudsley, in his 47-ton yacht Sphinx, won the cup. She was a steel-framed vessel based closely on the Niobe design.

He too had conducted trials with a revolutionary foresail flying from the masthead and using a detachable boom.

Who was first with the design? At this point in time it’s impossible to be certain but we can be sure that the 1866 victory was considered to be due to the new sail.

We can also be sure that the crew of Maudsley’s yacht called it the Sphinxacre.

From there it is a short step to our modern usage of spinnaker, the first printed usage of which appeared in the August 1866 edition of Yachting Calendar and Review.

What is also clear is the enormous impact of the invention, which spread rapidly throughout the yachting world and is to be seen in all its beauty in modern international racing.

The etymology of the word is slightly complicated by an unexplained reference in the log book of the USS Constitution, on July 13, 1812: ‘At 1am hoisted the mainsail and set the spinnaker.’

Most historians think it must have meant the spanker but it remains a mystery.

That curiosity apart, Portsmouth should be proud of the major innovation, which was brought about by the rivalry between two distinguished yachtsmen from the city.

This year sees the sesquicentennial of the Sphinx victory and its record in Yachting Calendar and Review. It will be celebrated by an enhanced Portsmouth Regatta in September.

Of the many thousands who see the Spinnaker Tower, how many will know of the vital role of two Victorian yachtsmen.

Our city is synonymous with the sea but often it is the navy and the dockyard that come to mind. We should also think of a breezy day in the Solent 150 years ago when one of the few genuine advances in sailing technology, that can be accurately reported and dated, was born.

Although Maudsley has been credited with the invention, it was his rival who in later life was popularly known as Spinnaker Gordon.

Visit portsmouthregatta.org for news of the regatta and the spinnaker’s anniversary.