E. Cobham Brewer 18101897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
(Under) implies that the weather is rough and the wind so high that the ship displays no sails on the masts. Figuratively applied to a man reduced to the last extremity. Figuratively, a disingenuous person sails under bare poles.
We were scudding before a heavy gale, under bare poles.Capt. Marryat.