Jacques Brel’s yacht classified as nautical heritage ahead of the restored vessel's return to water
One often overlooked chapter in the colourful life of legendary Belgian singer Jacques Brel was his love of sailing and his beloved yacht Askoy II.
As the newly-restored vessel prepares to return to the water – thanks to an ambitious rescue project by two Belgian brothers – Flemish minister Matthias Diependaele announced that it would be definitively classified as nautical heritage.
“The life stories of both the boat’s first owner and the boat itself have great historical value,” he said. “The Askoy II was the boat on which Jacques Brel sailed to the Marquis archipelago in the Pacific ocean. The boat also has an important industrial-archaeological value, as one of the largest steel sailing yachts ever built in Belgium.”
Launched in 1960, Askoy II’s first owner was renowned Antwerp architect and US army major Hugo Van Kuyck, who named the 20-metre yacht after a small Norwegian island. The former Victor Horta collaborator was involved in modernist landmark buildings such as the Luchtbal in Antwerp and the Generale Bank in Brussels. His military career included playing a key role in masterminding the D-day landings in Normandy in 1944.
In 1974, Van Kuyck sold the yacht to Jacques Brel (1929-1978; pictured). The Brussels-born singer learned to sailed the 40-tonne boat and set off with his girlfriend Maddly Bamy to the Marquesas Islands. Brel was to spend the last three years of his life in the French Polynesian archipelago.
Askoy II served as inspiration for one of his latter songs, ‘La Cathédrale’. It was an homage to the elegant boat that also traced his navigation across the Atlantic, from Cornwall and the Canaries to the Azores and Antilles.
But the former flagship of Belgium’s pleasure boat fleet then suffered varying fortunes. Brel sold it before his death to Americans who moved it to Hawaii. There, a new proprietor transformed it into a fishing boat and under subsequent ownership it was seized in Fiji after delivering 10 tonnes of marijuana to the Californian coast.
Auctioned off, Askoy II departed for New Zealand with its new skipper where it sank and spent some 20 years slowly disintegrating on a sand bank. But this was not to be the final journey for the once eye-catching yawl with its sleek design and varnished wood trim.
Restoration project launched by brothers
Blankenberge master sailmakers Piet and Staff Wittevrongel (pictured) were not only nautical fans, they had personal memories of the famous singer who approached the family firm to make sails for his newly-acquired yacht in 1974.
Staff did not immediately recognise him, according to one anecdote. “I was a little suspicious at first. Our customers were industrialists or doctors who came with their Porsches. Now here was a man from Brussels with a French accent, claiming that he had bought the largest yacht in Belgium. Another one with many dreams and little money, I thought.”
The sailmaker delivered a quote anyway and asked for the man's name and address. “I’m the one that all the Flemish want to kill. I’m Jacques Brel, ” was the reply.
Despite the inauspicious start to their relationship, Brel remained in contact with the brothers when he embarked on his ocean crossing, regularly sending them postcards.
Following its demise in the southern oceans, the pair bought the wrecked vessel in 2007 and repatriated it to Zeebrugge before launching a restoration project in tribute to the singer. For the past 15 years, under the non-profit foundation Save Askoy II, they have been lovingly returning the yacht to its former glory.
She was due to be re-launched on 8 April, on the occasion of the singer’s birthday, but this date has been postponed, Save Askoy II’s Facebook page recently announced.
So Askoy II’s odyssey is far from over. The plan is for deprived youngsters to be given the chance to learn to sail on her and perhaps make the same adventurous journey to the French Polynesian islands as the one undertaken by Brel and Bamy in the 1970s.
Photos: Vzw Save Askoy II