‘The Brel family keeps this ship silent, but she is always welcome’

From pleasure hunt to drug smuggling barge. The sailing yacht Askoy II has taken several guises in its long history, but is best known for its flamboyant owner Jacques Brel. After 15 years of careful restoration, the yacht will soon be back on the water.

The somewhat decrepit warehouse in Zeebrugge resembles a modest Jacques Brel museum. On the walls are yellowed newspaper articles, photos, postcards and works of art related to the Belgian chansonnier. The Askoy II is in the center of the scaffolding. 20 meters long, 40 tons heavy and since Friday officially protected by the Flemish government as sailing heritage.

Since 2008, Staf (82) and Piet (74) Wittevrongel have been working on the restoration of the sailing yacht, which languished on a beach in New Zealand for almost 15 years. The brothers single-handedly moved to the other side of the world to pry the ship free. ‘Because of the quicksand it didn’t matter much if we were able to put away our dream right away’, says Staf Wittevrongel, the oldest member of the sailmaker family of the same name. The family business from Blankenberge, which manufactures and repairs sails and masts, is now in its third generation with Ian and Steve.

Why all that effort – and 65,000 euros in costs – to get a destroyed ship back to Belgium? ‘Our passion for maritime heritage and for Jacques Brel’, says Piet. He came under the spell of the Askoy II at an exhibition about Brel. ‘There was no sign of the ship or of Maddly Bamy, the woman with whom Brel traveled the world. The family has been silent that part of his life. Because I thought that falsification of history was so hypocritical, I wanted to save that ship and correct that mistake.’

The brothers met Brel when he stepped into the sailmaker’s shop one winter’s day in 1974. Staf, who had just taken over the management of the family business, did not recognize him. “I was a little suspicious at first. Our customers were industrialists or doctors who came with the Porsche. Now there 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.’ Staf made up the offer anyway and asked for the man’s name and address. ‘Je suis celui que tous les Flamands foal tuer. I’m Jacques Brel’, was the reply.

A rare photo of Jacques Brel on the Askoy II
©Photo News

The Wittevrongels made the sails at a rapid pace, because Brel, who became a friend of the house, wanted to leave at all costs next summer on a world tour. ‘Our father declared him crazy. “Mr. Brel, that’s no boat for you,” he said. But Brel was determined,” says Piet Wittevrongel, who is also known for his career as a top basketball player.

Marijuana

‘Prenez une cathédrale, hissez le petit pavois, et faites chanter les voiles’, sang Brel about the Askoy II. The life of the singer, who only owned his ‘cathedral’ for two years, but also that of the Askoy II reads like a novel. After Brel, the ship served as a sailing yacht for an American hippie couple, as a means of transport for an American fishmonger and as a smuggling barge for a group of German and Californian drug dealers. They were arrested with 10 tons of marijuana on board.

After that criminal passage, the yacht was anchored for a long time for the first time, until a New Zealander bought the Askoy II for a pittance in the 90s. During a storm, the adventurer lost control, the ship ended up on the beach, where it remained. Enter Staf and Piet Wittevrongel, who took the ship to Belgium and fully restored it to its former glory. “We only had the hull left. Everything had rusted away. Without the help of companies and volunteers, the restoration would have cost at least 800,000 euros. Now we have perhaps invested 100,000 euros in it,’ they say.

One thing is troubling the brothers. While Brel’s life companion Maddly Bamy came to see the titanic work of the Wittevrongels, the descendants of the chansonnier remain silent. ‘They silence us to death. Everyone who comes to visit here finds it phenomenal. But we don’t exist for the family. If his daughter is here tomorrow, she can go right in. We’re not spiteful.’

Normally, the Askoy II would be launched again next Friday, on Jacques Brel’s birthday. Conditionally wise, and during the tour of the ship it becomes clear why. ‘It’s been called off. The kitchen and living space are not finished yet,” says Piet, pointing to the unfinished cabinets and floors. “When we do something, we do it right. When? We don’t put a timing on it anymore.’

It is certain that the Askoy II will sail again in the near future to the Marquess Archipelago, where Brel lived for years and is also buried. The Wittevrongels want to make this journey, along the same route as their most famous customer, together with a few volunteers. ‘If our health allows it’, says Staf. “Of course,” says his brother. “We put you at the helm as captain, with a parrot on your shoulder. Like the book: ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.’

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