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“Not having power to work sails, have to run before wind. Dare not lower, as could not raise them again.“

Since there are only four people still on the ship, it must take a crew of at least five to raise the Demeter's foresail and mainsail (the two largest sails that provide most of the ship’s driving power)—one steersman, and four men to handle the heavy sails, attached lines, wooden mast rings, boom, and gaff (a wooden spar that extends across the top of the sail). One of the large sails alone could weigh 200 lbs. or more, depending on the weight (density) of the sailcloth used. So the captain was right to hesitate at the idea of reefing the sails completely, and leave the ship with bare masts. It's important to have some sails raised, it gives you the power to control the ship, to turn it into heavy waves or simply to change course.

What about a half-measure, such as lowering the sails partway rather than reefing them entirely? Lowering sails is routinely done at night, because you can't see oncoming weather as well as you can during the daytime; an unexpected squall at night, with full sails set, can capsize the ship. So this isn’t some strange innovation that he might not think of on his own.

What caused the captain to leave the ship under full sail? Well, he was surely exhausted and under tremendous strain. He may have slipped into thinking he had to have either full sails or no sails at all, and so made a serious error.

Bryan Alexander

More great contextual analysis, M.S. Offhand I can't recall how much naval knowledge Stoker had. Probably not much.

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