Brel’s Askoy II saved by two believers

It will be Jacques Brel’s birthday on 8 April 2021. Thanks to the efforts of the brothers Staf and Piet Wittevrongel who have been working on the restoration of the sailing yacht for years, the ship will be launched in the port of Zeebrugge. This mythical ship was purchased in 1974 by Jacques Brel, the chansonnier par excellence. He sailed it to the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Due to a protracted illness he sold the ship in 1976.

Via inland waterways the Askoy II will first sail to the port of Zeebrugge where the masts will be placed by Jan Vandamme and his team. After the port festivities of Blankenberge, the Askoy II will set sail as a resurrected Phoenix to Ostend at Anchor. The theme of the project is the preservation of Maritime Heritage. In addition, the initiator wants to keep the positive spirit of Jacques Brel alive”. Normally the sailing ship was launched last year, but due to the death of the ship’s carpenter and Miss Corona the launching was postponed. The project is almost finished; thanks to the new carpenter Bernard Bolson. He volunteered spontaneously to join the Wittewrongel brothers and worked continuously on the sailing ship since the beginning of the first “Lock Down” in March 2020. He is an old employee of the aircraft manufacturer “Dassault” and has already restored the Brel aircraft. Everything has to fit like a jigsaw puzzle and the fuselage, plumbing, propulsion and cabling are already in order. The cabins and living space still need some time, but they manage.

The Askoy II was built in 1960 at the Antwerp shipyard Van de Voorde. Askoy is the name of an island off the Norwegian coast, near the port of Bergen. The Askoy II is one of the largest steel sailing yachts built in Belgium after the Second World War. The RYCB (Royal Yacht Club of Belgium) in Antwerp owns a scale model of this prestigious yacht.

The Askoy II was built in 1960 at the Antwerp shipyard Van de Voorde. Askoy is the name of an island off the Norwegian coast, near the port of Bergen. The Askoy II is one of the largest steel sailing yachts built in Belgium after the Second World War. The RYCB (Royal Yacht Club of Belgium) in Antwerp owns a scale model of this prestigious yacht.

The sailing yacht was commissioned by Hugo Van Kuyck (1902-1975). Van Kuyck worked as a civil engineer for Victor Horta from 1932. Between 1936 and 1940, he taught at Yale University. As an officer in the U.S. Army, Van Kuyck helped prepare for the landing in Normandy. As a modernist architect, Van Kuyck left an extensive oeuvre of office buildings in Brussels in the 1950s.

Van Kuyck himself drew the first sketches for the design of the Askoy II, which were then elaborated by Raymond Derkinderen. Van Kuyck sailed with his yacht on the North Sea, around Scotland and Norway.

When Brel was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1974, he settled definitively on Hiva Oa. In 1976 he sold the Askoy II to an American. Afterwards the ship was sold several times until it ran into a storm off the coast of New Zealand in 1994 and stranded at Baylys Beach (near Dargaville).

With the little plane Jojo (named after his friend who died a short time before) Jacques provided hand-and-span services to the local population. He occasionally travelled to Europe for medical treatment as well as to record his thirteenth and immediately last LP, entitled Les Marquises.

Les Marquises (also known as Brel) was released on 17 November 1977. It was the first full-fledged and, according to critics, artistically acclaimed record by Brel in almost ten years. It was also a commercial success. On the day of its release, 650,000 copies were sold immediately. In total, more than two million albums were sold.

Shortly after the release Brel returned to Hiva Oa, where he stayed with Maddly until the summer of 1978. A rapidly deteriorating health condition forced him to spend the last three months of his life in France. On 9 October 1978 he died of a pulmonary embolism. He was buried in the cemetery of Atuona in Hiva Oa, not far from Paul Gauguin’s grave.

Some of Jacques Brel’s sailing enthusiasts and fans founded the non-profit organisation Save Askoy II in 2004, with the intention of bringing the wreckage back to Belgium and restoring the ship to its former glory. In 2004, the vzw received the property rights to the ship from the previous owner. The wreck was excavated in December 2007 on Baylys Beach and arrived in Belgium in May 2008. At that time the ship was no more than a twisted and rusty hull. The masts, the deck, the rigging, the engine, the interior and the deck equipment had disappeared.

It was the intention that the Maritime Site Oostende would restore the ship to its original condition, but the Maritime Site had to stop all activities. Therefore, on 8 April 2010 the Askoy II was transferred to the Nieuwe Schelde shipyards in Rupelmonde. There the restoration of the hull of the ship was in full swing. A new deck was added. A piece of steel from the WTC towers was incorporated into the ship. At the shipyard Van Damme in Zeebrugge wooden masts were made according to the original plans.

 

The objective of the non-profit organisation Save Askoy II is to turn the ship into a sailing ambassador. The interior was adapted to allow sailing with groups. A big compliment for all the volunteers and especially for Staf and Piet Wittevrongel, inspirers of this exceptional project!