The spinnaker is widely credited to have been first used in a regatta in 1866, but where does the name come from?

The Albert Cup in 1866 is thought to be the first time a yacht flew what is now known as a spinnaker, the large balloon-like three-cornered sail used for extra sail area down wind.


A spinnaker is set on board Mariquita, almosty exactly as it would have been done aboard Niobe and Sphinx

Yacht racing in the Solent 150 years ago was dominated by large yachts with even larger crews. The Royal Albert Yacht Club had just been founded in Southsea and the prize of its Albert Cup was attracting serious competition. In 1865 the cup was was won by Niobe, a 40-tonne cutter owned by William Conway Gordon. He had been testing out a full-bellied foresail for downwind sailing. Some suggest that the name of the sail was under debate at this point. While Gordon wanted to call the sail after the boat, a crew-member said: ‘Now there’s a sail to maker her spin,’ which soon became ‘spin-maker’ and Gordon became known as ‘Spinnaker Gordon’.


Setting up for spinnaker sailing

The alternative theory suggests that it was in fact his rival, HC Maudsley, the following year, who also flew a revolutionary downwind sail on board the 47-tonne Sphinx to win the Albert Cup. The yacht’s name was, apparently, pronounced by ‘Spinx’ by many, and the foresail called the ‘spinx-acre’ for its vast size.

In either case, the sails were large, full-bellied, three-cornered and flown from a detachable boom or pole. The name quickly became accpeted as the ‘spinnaker’ and it is this design that is still used today on yachts of all sizes. Happy 150th birthday to the spinnaker.