Set the spanker

Published on October 6, 2012

Who knows what a spanker is? I was afloat on the fishing grounds off Mad Rock last week, fishing for cod with my daughter Allison, and her boyfriend Patrick. Mad Rock is the point of land that separates Spaniard’s Bay and Bay Roberts. I’m referring now to the actual bays and not the incorporated towns bearing the same names.

You can drive down to Mad Rock through the east end of Bay Roberts (the town) and witness an incredible sunrise over Conception Bay. That’s if you’re an early riser.

Back to spankers. …

We were treated to a magnificent sunrise while fishing for cod in about 25 fathoms of water. There’s nothing more spectacular than watching the breaking of day from a boat. That alone was worth the lost sleep and effort.

We were catching a few fish, but the gathering wind kept blowing us off the small spot of ground we were working. I commented to my fellow crew, “What we need is a spanker.” The responses from both were dumbfounded looks. “What in the devil is a spanker?”

Has anybody clued in on this? Have you figured it out, or do you recall from days gone by, the primary function and form of a spanker?

On a square-rigged sailing ship, the spanker is a gaff rigged fore-and-aft sail set from and aft of the aftmost mast. That’s the Wikipedia definition and, from my searching about, the generally accepted definition according to the World Wide Web.

But I’m not old enough to know much about square-rigged sailing vessels, and what could that possibly have to do with small cod fishing boats. Where did I learn about spankers? The purpose of the spanker — or mizzen sail, as it is called on most yawl configurations — is to provide overall stability and balance to the vessel while under sail. The sail itself is aft of the rudder. A spanker provides exceptional maneuverability and in skilled hands can be used to steer the boat or ship.

On anchorage the spanker is often set as a riding sail to keep the vessel pointed into the wind, and not flaying back and forth on its mooring rope. It works like feathers on an arrow.

Newfoundland fishermen were a resourceful lot. It was an essential survival trait in the early settling of this rugged sometimes inhospitable rock in the cold North Atlantic. Early fishing was done by sailing and rowing. There were no engines in the pioneer days. Our forefathers were expert boatbuilders and sailors. They knew full well the function of a mizzen or spanker. No doubt they utilized their spankers on the fishing grounds.

If you’re hand-lining or jigging for cod, you certainly don’t want to drift too quickly over the fishing grounds and bypass schools of fish. A boat under no power will naturally turn side on to the wind and drift at maximum speed. Enter the spanker sail. If you set a spanker on the stern of your boat it will point into the wind and drift with only a tiny fraction of the speed it did side on. Brilliant it is.

Newfoundland mariners had that figured out many years ago. They put engines in their boats, but kept their spanker sails for fishing in windy conditions. They would set the spanker when setting baited hook trawls or jigging for their livelihood. It was a technology that stood the test of time, but is sadly lacking in the modern world of fibreglass and aluminum. My 17-foot aluminum boat drifts on the water like a piece of cork with a sail on it.

I learned about spankers in my late teens, from older fishermen, while catching cod to pay my MUN tuition.

I explained to Patrick and Allison the function and form of a spanker sail. Allison remembered seeing them furled to their masts on motor boats moored in Trinity East. We visit there most every summer to visit old friends. That’s where I first experienced the virtues of the traditionally styled Newfoundland motor boat.

I went on explaining about deep heels and reverse curves to Allison and Patrick

as we pulled fish from the depths, making up our daily quota of 15 cod.

The Newfoundland motorboat, or trap skiff as it was often called, was the most utilitarian of watercraft designs imaginable. Rather than being created on a naval architect’s drafting table or computer screen, it evolved over many decades of craft and seamanship. Its lines and structure were fine-tuned through trial and error, driven by experience on Newfoundland’s stormy, frigid waters.

These boats were definitely not pretty yachts piloted by mariners sporting crisp hats and white cardigans.

 Newfoundland motorboats were working craft steered by rugged men dressed in blue Guernsey sweaters and oilskins. The boats had inner beauty, timbers hewn by hand and adz from hillside black spruce and twisted roots. Planks were skillfully spiled to fit using long wooden planes and rip saws in harbourside sheds.

The sweet smell of oakum and pipe tobacco circulated in the air, driven by the intense heat from a pot belly cast iron stove. Shavings piled high on the board floor while the cold northeast wind whipped around the snow outside.

This was the birthplace of a motorboat. There were no blueprints. A wooden scale model hung on the wall over the stove. It had been passed down through generations. From this treasured piece of family tradition, the frames were lofted and attached to a straight and true keel.

In May, the snow melted and the warm spring sunshine dried the fresh white paint on a new motorboat’s sleek hull. The men around the harbour were installing a new 4 hp Atlantic engine. Soon it would sputter to life with the crank of the flywheel and break the morning silence as fishermen tended their traps. It would serve faithfully all summer long; bringing ashore quintals of Newfoundland cod.

Autumn would come in time, and the cod traps would lie drying on yellowing fields. This was the time for fishing with hook, line and bait. September winds would freshen and the spanker would be set.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at