"The last extremity. . . ." Naval term?

I heard this term in “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.”

From the context it seems to mean that a ship is dangerously rolling or pitching (in this case, as the result of going into a typhoon.)

Any further info?

WAG: perhaps the last extremity, literally, would be whatever part of the boat sinks last. If it tips over to the left, the right side would be the last extremity, where all the sailors would go…

BTW, I’ve heard that “the bitter end” comes from a nautical term: bitts, which is the end of the rope that’s fastened to a static fixture on the deck. If a sailor was told to let out the rope when it couldn’t go anymore, he’d say “I can’t, it’s already at the bitter end.”


“Extremity” also means “desperate situation”.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Specifically, the phrase means that the ship is in immediate danger of sinking.

Or in the case of the Caine, capsizing.
::rolling steel balls::

For those who’ve seen (or read) “The Caine Mutiny,” this will be unnecessary, but some background is in order.

The dictatorial Lieutenant Commander Queeg has alienated the entire crew, and especially his officers, with his tantrums, his paranoia, and his groundless accusations. His officers have started to believe he’s clinically insane. During a particularly violent storm, he seems panicky and disoriented, and begins giving contradictory orders. At this point, his next-in-command, Steve Marek, relieves Queeg of his command, and takes over, convinced that Queeg’s cowardice and incompetence will lead to disaster.

During Marek’s court martial, it is essential that he convince the judges that his ship was in “the last extremity,” which is to say, it was ON THE VERGE of sinking. Under naval law, Marek’s actions were ONLY justified if the alternative to disobeying the captain was to sink. The Navy’s presumption is that the commanding officer is the best qualified seaman on board a ship. Even if a ship is pitching and rolling violently, the Navy assumes that the captain is doing what seems best, and his subordinates could not justify relieving him.

Author Herman Wouk didn’t make the decision an easy one, and he seemed rather ambiguous about whether the crew was right to relieve Queeg. WAS Queeg paranoid? Perhaps- but his officers WERE disloyal to him, so his paranoia may have been partially justified. WAS Queeg making dumb, dangerous command decisions during the storm? Perhaps- or maybe his officers, who already questioned his sanity, CHOSE to believe the worst of Queeg.

In the end, lawyer Barney Rosenberg gets Marek off the hook legally, but leaves him (and his fellow officers) wondering whether they’d done the right thing.

Strawberries. It was the strawberries.

I’ve never read the full novel (just a sort of Cliff Notes version), but it looks like the book merely had Queeg be an incompetent jackass; whereas the movie made it look like Queeg was truly certifiable. IMO, the book better presents the ambiguity of the junior officer’s choice.

Having seen the movie (Bogart, McMurray) and the play (Brad Davis, Jeff Daniels, Eric Bogosian), the play was much better.

An extremity, in naval parliance, is the point in time when a decision has to be made in order to save a ship from imminent danger. For example, if a destroyer is steaming at 20 knots towards a cliff, once the extremity is passed, there is no action the captain or crew can make to prevent smashing into the rocks.
This is kind of like the “point of no return” for aviators. Given a specific amount of fuel, no refueling capacity and a single airstrip (for simplicity), a plane can fly only so far away from the airport before it must turn back. If the pilot passed the point of no return, or extremity, he wouldn’t have enough fuel left to return safely.
“The last extremity” is a pseudo-rendundant term insofar as any extremity passed could cost you your ship.

A final point for Pete per “bitter end.” The bitter end is the free end of any line. (Glossary of Navy Terms; The Bluejackets’ Manual {twenty-first edition}) This opposes most dictionary definitions, I know. But for naval entymology ya gotta go to naval sources.

Now, let’s talk the difference between line, rope, wire, twine and small stuff…

“You can’t assume a damned thing in the Navy.”
Is that true, Chief?

You can assume if you wish, Nickrz.

But if you’re wrong, the chief gets to kick your ass.