Belgian brothers look to put singer Brel’s boat back to sea
Belgian singer Jacques Brel famously crooned about clinging to love in iconic hits like “Ne me quitte pas” and now two brothers in his homeland are engaged in their own enduring passion project to restore his cherished sailboat.
In the North Sea port of Zeebrugge, Gustaaf and Piet Wittevrongel are close to returning the yacht to the sea, 15 years after it was salvaged as a wreck from a New Zealand beach.
The red and blue hull of the 20 meter (66 foot) Askoy II looks almost as good new as the final work is done ahead of a planned launch in September.
That will be almost 45 years after the death of the Belgian songster, whose French-language ballads such as “Quand on n’a que l’amour” made him a global star in the 1950s and 60s.
“We’re waiting for the green light from the maritime inspection,” said older brother Gustaaf, 84.
Brel embarked on two epic ocean crossings in the Askoy II — then considered one of the most beautiful vessels of its kind — in 1974 to the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific.
But he sold it in Polynesia after becoming more interested in flying and the boat eventually ended up shipwrecked in New Zealand after reportedly passing through the hands of drug smugglers.
While Brel’s fame lives on internationally, for the Wittevrongel brothers the connection to the singer and his boat is much more personal.
It was in their father’s shop on the Belgian coast some five decades ago that Brel bought the boat’s sails and rigging before setting off on his adventures.
“I didn’t know who was talking to me. I told him that his purchase was going to cost hundreds of thousands of Belgian francs,” recalls Gustaaf, who was just a trainee at the time.
“When he told me his name, I realized that he could afford a set of sails.”
- Cranes and bulldozers –
Doing up the rust-covered wreck has been a mammoth task.
A Belgian yachting enthusiast toyed with the idea for a while but gave up for lack of money.
The Wittevrongel brothers, however, were undeterred and decided to take up the challenge with the help of New Zealand contractors who used cranes and bulldozers to rescue the vessel.
“Before the high tide flooded back in, we only had four hours to see the boat and dig, pull and pump”, Gustaaf says.
“We did that for three days and got it out.”
A shipping company agreed to transport the hull of the yacht, wedged between two containers, free of charge across the globe back to Antwerp in Belgium.
In April 2008, the Askoy II arrived back in Belgium.
Now the two brothers have added extra berths to the interior and are dreaming of sailing her across the ocean again just as their hero once did.
“Brel did it with two people but you need at least six crew if you want to go back to the Marquesas in the future,” says Piet Wittevrongel.
by Matthieu DEMEESTERE
©️ Agence France-Presse