The following is an excerpt from Dickens' David Copperfield Chapter XXIII when Steerforth was explaining to Copperfield what a proctor is:

You shall go there one day, and find them blundering through half the nautical terms in Young's Dictionary, apropos of the "Nancy" having run down the "Sarah Jane", or Mr. Peggotty and the Yarmouth boatmen having put off in a gale of wind with an anchor and cable to the "Nelson" Indiaman in distress;

I wonder what exactly was Mr. Peggoty and the Yarmouth boatmen's action: refusing to help "Nelson" or helped 'Nelson" in spite of the dangers? What exactly does "put off" mean here?


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    Yeah, having done a modest amount of sailing, I'd understand "put off", in that context, to mean leaving the dock or whatever, bearing an anchor and cable to assist the Nelson. – Hot Licks Sep 15 '15 at 12:03

There are nautical dictionaries online. However I didn't immediately find one with 'to put off'.

A meaning of 'to put' in ordinary dictionaries is 'to change location'. Thus 'to put to sea' is common parlance in the sailing world. It means to leave the land and move out to sea.

To my knowledge (as someone who has done a certain amount of sailing) 'to put off' means to leave your mooring but specifically a harbourside or dockside or quay. EDIT Note: You first 'cast off' which refers to undoing any ropes or cables that are holding you in place and then you may 'push off' (in a small boat, this can be with your hands or feet) in order to gain distance from whatever you were attached to. To 'put off' is a more general term that covers the other aspects.

P.S. It means that they set out to sea in order to help. My guess is that they were carrying the cable and anchor so that the Nelson could anchor itself and thus avoid being blown ashore and wrecked.

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