Famous Boats: The Strange Saga of the 'Orca' from JAWS

By: Scott Way

Jaws was released on June 20th, 1975, and to celebrate its 45th anniversary as one of cinema's best aquatic thrillers we dove into the fascinating backstory behind what became of Quint's disheveled but beloved boat: the Orca.


The surly Quint, played by the inimitable Robert Shaw, is a fully unhinged boat captain with a wild-eyed charisma that somehow convinces Amity's level-headed police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), and smug marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), to hop aboard the Orca in search of a 25-foot murder fish with a penchant for beach-goers. As we all know, things went awry in the sunny waters off the fictional Amity Island (which was filmed off the real Martha's Vineyard). Based on Peter Benchley's 1974 novel of the same name, the hysteria created by the film moored itself firmly in the psyche of anyone dipping a toe in the water. 'The Jaws Effect' was real, and it had a pronounced effect not just on the future of filmmaking, but on the psychology of water enthusiasts everywhere. Swimmers, divers, and boaters suddenly became acutely aware (and very paranoid) about the unseen danger lurking below the surface. The bedraggled Quint and his decrepit Orca became mystic: his name and boat a part of aquatic lore like Blackbeard and The Queen Anne's Revenge, Jack Sparrow and The Black Pearl, and of course Captain Ahab and the Pequod.


(Fun Sidenote- my parents watched Jaws on its release date in theaters in 1975 while living on a tiny freshwater lake in Northern Ontario. They swore off swimming in the lake indefinitely, even though it was barely larger than a pond and the biggest thing in it were leeches. It was weeks before they went in again.)

In the film, the Orca, with its peeling paint and rotten deckboards, is besieged and ultimately destroyed by both the stubbornness of the Ahab-esque Quint and the bloodlust of the shark. Quint's mission for glory slowly unfurls as his insatiable thirst for revenge, and he tosses any semblance of logic overboard while John Williams' legendary musical score slowly builds (dun dun.... dun dun....). Quint eventually fries the radio, cooks the motor, and rattles his crew with a chilling tale about his time aboard the USS Indianapolis and the shark-infested waters that haunt his mind. His mission to hunt down and kill Jaws is his personal white whale, and there was no bigger boat than the Orca, and no shark scarier than Jaws, to captivate audiences.


We know what becomes of dear old Quint. His monologue and death scene were revered by critics and earned him legendary status (although the outtake reel wasn't without its humorous moments). Now 45 years later, we're taking a look back at Jaws to uncover what became of Quint's beloved Orca and the shark-fearing culture it spawned.

The filming of Jaws off New England's coast presented unique challenges for young director Steven Spielberg. With salt water wreaking havoc on the hydraulics used to maneuver both the Orca and its sinkable stunt double Orca II, not to mention the full-size electronic faux-shark (nicknamed "Bruce"), much of the machinery was abandoned or sold off to locals when filming wrapped. At least, at first. This is where the stories of Orca I and Orca II diverge into two drastically different endings that seem strangely fitting for the famously troubled production.


Orca I, the actual functioning fishing boat was originally purchased by production designer Joe Alves in nearby Marblehead, Massachusetts for use in the film. It was a lobster boat under the name Warlock before being renamed and refitted with a mast pulpit. It was repainted in burgundy and black and had oversized windows installed to make it more identifiable as an intimidating shark hunting vessel.


Orca II was merely a fibreglass replica of the original Orca I. Made strictly for the film, it was a sinkable set piece put in place anytime "Bruce" attacked the boat. With a complicated system of hydraulic barrels that allowed the boat to be tilted and 'sunk' on command, it was essentially a showpiece for shark attacks. The stern was made to break away during the attack on Quint and had to be rebuilt multiple times to get the right take. The Orca II was itself a difficult vessel- it reportedly sunk properly on more than one occasion, taking two expensive cameras on loan from Universal Studios with it. Its fragile wood components required the importing of wood from California to get the right destructive sequence.


After filming wrapped, Universal Studios shipped Orca I back to Hollywood with the bulk of the movie's equipment. For unknown reasons, shortly thereafter they sold it for $13,000 to a special effects technician in Los Angeles who wanted to use it for sword fishing. A year later, when the movie became a massive hit topping $100 million at the box office, Universal raced to buy the boat back and capitalize on its mystique- allegedly paying 10 times what they'd sold it for. In a fitting end to Orca I, it became the backdrop to the 'Amity Island' ride at Universal Studios. In another strange twist, legends persist that Spielberg used to visit the set at night to reminisce or find inspiration before it was unceremoniously chopped up and destroyed without warning when it became too rundown to show. No one really knows, or is willing to talk about, how exactly Orca I met its end.


The Orca II went a much different, and even sadder, route. It was scuttled by a series of petty thefts, disillusionment, and eventually abandonment. As a fibreglass replica of the Orca I hull with no motor- plus a complicated system of hydraulic barrels and lifts- it had little nautical value. A local marine mechanic named Lynne Murphy who'd been hired to work on the film purchased it for the hefty sum of $1. Murphy was familiar with the Jaws equipment, having been hired to assist with everything from towing the robotic shark to fixing the machinery that failed regularly during production (which went vastly over its initial $3.5 million budget- eventually totaling over $7 million- and months past its original shooting schedule). With Universal having no real use for the Orca II, Murphy was happy to bring home his own souvenir.

Murphy had a purpose for the Orca II, but not as memorabilia. As the owner of a salvage operation on the shoreline of nearby Menemsha Creek, he placed the Orca II alongside several other forgotten boats from the shoot- including the SS Garage Sale which had served as the on-set vessel for storing costumes, camera equipment, and other production pieces. Murphy's intent was to use the fibreglass hull to build a shed on his property, but that idea ran aground when his plans were denied by local building authorities. With few other options, the Orca II sat idle through the rest of '74 until the movie was released in the summer of '75. According to Murphy's wife Susan, “It had no bottom. There was nothing that could make it float. It was not seaworthy. The only thing that made it seaworthy was the tanks that were filled to keep it floating. That’s how it could sink on cue. The only reason he got it is because they practically gave it to him." Then in June of '75, Jaws hysteria hit. Much like the famous Fairbanks, Alaska city bus from Into The Wild that became an iconic landmark for outdoor enthusiasts, "finatics" from Jaws began searching for the Orca. It became a pilgrimage for movie fans and boaters to discover, and ultimately, pillage to the point of abandonment.

Jaws became the highest grossing film of all-time by late 1975 (until Star Wars arrived two years later). Martha's Vineyard became a mecca for tourists and boaters looking to experience 'Amity Island.' They came with hopes of scooping up movie memorabilia, or to hear local tales about the goings-on of the now famous cast who'd created Hollywood's biggest phenomenon. Murphy's boat quickly became a very obvious and very identifiable piece of movie memorabilia sitting on the beach in Menemsha. According to Murphy's wife Susan, "it started to be picked to death." 'Finatics' tore into the Orca II. It wasn't too long before the pulpit, mast, and fly bridge all went missing. 


“Sometimes we called the police,” Susan says. “They would meet people on the other side of the harbor after they got back on the road with the stuff and arrest them for trespassing and stealing.” Some arrived under the cover of night using flashlights. The Murphys put up “No Trespassing” signs but it did little to slow down thieves.


With few options, the Murphys could do little but watch as the Orca II was picked clean. Between the thefts and the saltwater dousing it, the next 30 years would see it reduced to practically nothing. The final tipping point came in 2005, when Martha’s Vineyard announced it would be hosting 'Jawsfest,' a weekend festival celebrating everything Jaws. The Murphys knew that with movie buffs descending on their tiny town, the Orca II was too obvious to ignore. “Once we cut it up,” Susan says, “it was done.”


The Murphys took a chainsaw to the Orca II and slashed it into 1000 fibreglass squares 1 foot by 1 foot each. With a little entrepreneurial spirit they sold them for profit (at a fair rate of $130 each and placed inside a custom shadow box made by Susan) rather than as fly-by-night burglary prizes. Each piece came with a certificate of authenticity signed by the Murphys. Susan even willingly let go of a few other prized items- including the yellow barrels Quint harpooned into the shark from the pulpit during their back and forth battle. Those went to courteous 'finatics' who reached out in advance and visited her on the island with permission. Then in 2011, the Murphys entered into an agreement with authors Matt Taylor and Jim Beller to contribute pieces of the boat to the limited edition of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard. The book took a comprehensive look at the making of the film and the contributions of cast and crew. The pieces quickly sold out. The last one that turned up on eBay sold for a reported $1850.


“Once the book came out and people found out how big a part in the movie we had, there was a certain element of respect that wasn’t there before,” Susan says. “I’m not one to hold a grudge. I have to let go of what happened to the Orca II and the difficulty we had in protecting it.”

In many ways, the Murphys were the de-facto saviors of both the production and the enduring cultural phenomenon that remained in Martha's Vineyard after Jaws left for Hollywood. Although both Orca I and Orca II deserved a better end, it's strangely fitting they were chewed up by shark 'finatics.' The saddest part, though, is that the Orca II would have undoubtedly been worth a tidy sum. In comparison to other movie relics like the slippers from Wizard of Oz or Luke Skywalker's lightsaber from Star Wars, had the Orca II stayed in salvageable condition there is little double it would have been worth millions to a collector.


Even though the Orca II suffered a slow demise at the hands of pop culture pilferers, "Bruce" the mechanical shark survived the next few decades surprisingly well. Having gone from public enemy #1 to gradual 'fin' favourite, the 25 foot fibreglass predator spent 25 years in a Los Angeles scrapyard before being revived for a museum show in 2018.

h/t to Mental Floss and Marlin Mag


#culture

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