Reply To: Mutton Spankers & Ringtail Topsails

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Frank Scott

I received the following responses from a different Forum. These are summarised below, along with my comments:

From W.H. (Bill) Bunting)
Leg of mutton spankers for schooners were only seen in East Coast waters if the schooner originated from the West Coast.
There was a variation notably used by all of the four-masted barks built by the Sewalls at Bath. These ring tails were set from the standing gaff which was fitted at the lower mast head. They also set a regular gaff topsail above the standing gaff. A photo of the ROANOKE making sail for the first time shows her with a leg of mutton spanker and gaff topsail set. See
Sailmaker to the Sewalls, Alexander Cutler, described the ring tails which he made for the four-masted barks as being three-sided, yet he included in his autobiography (as told to his daughter Janet Cutler Mead) a painting of the SHENANDOAH setting a rectangular ring tail, the foot of which was located at about half the hoist of the spanker.

From Erik Abranson :
The brigantine GALILEE, designed and built in 1891 by Matthew Turner, set a ringtail topsail on her leg-o’mutton mainsail. Her rig and lines are the inspiration for the design and rig of a new, but smaller, wooden brigantine MATTHEW TURNER, which is currently under construction in Sausalito, California.
According to the plans on the link, the MATTHEW TURNER will set a leg-o’mutton mainsail with ringtail topsail, thus resurrecting a rig that has been dead for over eight decades. She is scheduled for launching in 2016.

My Responses:
I had forgotten the ringtail on the Sewall barks, which is to my mind another variant of the split spanker.
In the square rigger ringtail the luff of the mutton was attached to the mast, and the clew was hauled in & out to furl/set, as with a normal spanker, whereas with the schooner mutton the foot was laced to the boom, and the peak was hoisted/ lowered as required. McDonald’s article has some good clear sketches of how it all worked, and is well worth looking up (free download).
Both versions are illustrated in Harold Underhill’s classic ‘Masting & Rigging’ (Glasgow, 1972) page 125. He thought that the schooner version came when someone decided that the gaff topsail & gaff were not worth the bother, and deleted the gaff, leaving a ringtail, or jib-headed topsail, extending down the leech of the mutton. This seems very plausible.
It is also worth noting that the triangular spanker in full-rigged ships became a feature in quite a few square riggers worldwide (not merely USA)from the late nineteenth century onwards. It is a different animal to the American West Coast Schooner & Brigantine version that was combined with a jib-headed ringtail topsail, and this version had had no gaff, and no ringtail topsail.
During the later part of the nineteenth century sailing ships got bigger, and I think that some designers had problems producing well balanced square riggers (particularly full-rigged ships). Dividing the spanker from throat to clew, and operating mostly with only the triangular leg of mutton spanker, was a neat solution that left them with a sail that was very easy to handle, but still had sufficient area to enable then to tack. For wearing in heavy weather the ease of setting & furling would have been a significant advantage. For barques the German double gaff split spanker rig achieved the same result.
I have read a lot of complaints about ships that carried excessive weather helm, but cannot recall one that carried lee helm, so the size of the spanker under normal operation was important.

With thanks to W.H. (Bill) Bunting, Erik Abranson, both of the MarHst-L Forum

Frank Scott