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Sailing with a Spinnaker & Living on the Edge!

14th April 2020
A Sigma 33 crew get to grips with a spinnaker while racing on Strangford Lough in 2019 A Sigma 33 crew get to grips with a spinnaker while racing on Strangford Lough in 2019 Photo: Courtesy Peter Mullan

The yacht pictured above this week is definitely not aground, though it is at a critical angle.

It is a Sigma 33 racing at Quoile Yacht Club on Strangford Lough.

“We do have these interesting moments with spinnakers on these boats. This boat is definitely not aground,” says Peter Mullan in response to my recent Podcast about spinnakers and my own Sigma 33 experience. “You have a somewhat reluctant view of the glory of kites” and “that’s a lot of aversion to spinnakers” were amongst responses.

There are certainly mixed views about spinnakers, though “there is no doubting the “enjoyment and thrill they give, living on the edge, it’s great!” said another Email.

Peter Mullan’s photo recalled for me other moments with a spinnaker flying.

"there is no doubting the “enjoyment and thrill they give, living on the edge"

Off-watch in my bunk on the West Coast aboard John Killeen’s 44ft. ‘Mayhem’ out of Galway Bay Sailing Club in the Round Ireland Race. As she rose to a wave with the kite up there would be a great cheer from the Galwegians I was sailing with as Mayhem raced forwards, downwards it seemed to me braced in the bunk, then poised or shuddered, which was my impression of the moment as she picked up, the spinnaker gave her more power and she was away again, the Galwegians repeating the process time and again!

peterson mayhemMayhem, a Doug Peterson 40 of 1981 vintage

I’ve been trying to trace the origins of spinnakers, about which there seem to be several views. The origins of the name are lost in time, it seems to me.

There is one view that the spinnaker, described as “the colourful sail that can lead to equal amounts of delight and dread onboard yachts,” was first carried by a yacht in Cowes, off the Isle of Wight called Sphinx, or in some places named as ‘Spinx’ and that this new style of sail was then set in the Solent. That is contradicted by claims that the first boat to use a spinnaker was Niobe, owned by William Gordon and that one of his crew when they saw it said the sail would “make the boat spin” and so it became known as a spinnaker and William was called “Spinnaker Gordon”.

But then, Thames sailing barges used the term spinnaker for their jib staysails.

So, there’s no clear agreement about the origins.

There were spinnakers from Code Zero upwards on yachts that I have sailed on …. which took plenty of grabbing to get them down and even falling on top of at times in high winds to smother as they whirled like dancing dervishes about the bow`. And I remember the regular warning shout from the deck of NCB Ireland as we raced across the Atlantic in the Whitbread Round the World Race when the spinnaker was downed and, in your bunk you’d hear a shout as it was dumped down the hatch, spray often flying everywhere, followed by bodies grabbing it to rebag and ready it for the next launch. I remember it well as I learned how to bag the kite quickly and pray that when it went up again it was without a twist!

And I still remember those whoops of the Mayhem crew which convinced me that sailing on the West Coast was an “entirely different process.”

Published in Tom MacSweeney
Tom MacSweeney

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Tom MacSweeney

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Tom MacSweeney writes a weekly column for He also presents the maritime radio programme This Island Nation on community radio stations around Ireland.

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