Jacques Brel - BREL'S BOAT


  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

The Askoy II has recently left the dock at Nieuwe Scheldewerven where it was welded and treated with the love it so desperately needed, after having been buried in the News Zeeland's desolate beach sands for so many years. We congratulate Piet and Staf Wittevrongel and the Askoy II foundation with this major step towards getting her to sail again!

Find here also a French tv report on the progress:

401Brel.nl will continue to promote the Askoy II on her way back the Azores, the Panama Channel, Hiva Oa and beyond, for eventually, she must triumph over Bayley's Beach, and the Tasman Seas that once thought to have claimed her fore good.



Brel’s sea journey with the Askoy II is at the heart of the new biography. The chapters on Brel’s final years have been expanded with the remarkable story of the things that happened with Brel’s boat after the artist died. Seghers: ‘The story of Brel’s boat and its ultimate recovery in 2007, is one of those incredible coincidences that makes you believe it can’t be a coincidence. It all started when I found references to the salvage of the Askoy. I looked into it and contacted the rescue team, united in the Save Askoy II Foundation. The two men behind it proved to the brothers Piet & Staf Wittevrongel, assisted by secretary Gerald Muylle. The name of the brothers rang a bell in the back of my head: hadn’t I written of a certain Johan Wittevrongel, the sail sewer from Blankenberge who made Brel’s sails. Indeed! Piet & Staf had helped him as teenagers in the family company.’

Walking through the 2003 Brel exhibition Le droit de rever and reading the Askoy chapters in my first book, the Wittevrongels started looking into the history of the boat after Brel passed away. Their research resulted in a thriller. The Askoy II was first sold to a hippy couple that celebrated their love on it under the ‘No Nukes’ banner. Then it was owned by an adventurous fisherman, who turned the yacht into a deep freeze boat, before reselling the ship to a gang of soft drugs smugglers!



All owners of the Askoy since its creator, Hugo van Kuyck, were adventurous people, and yet no one of them, including Brel, was more adventurous than captain Helmut Rutten. His plan: to use the Askoy II as mother ship in a trans Pacific soft drugs smuggling operation. On June 26, 1988, the Askoy II sailed from New Guinea and the Chinese Sea to Hawaii, with on board 12 tons of Red Thai marihuana. The crew existed, besides Rutten, of Randall Scott Harrack en Suzanne Pearson. Not exactly by chance, the trio was held up for interrogation in New Guinea, where they had violated immigration rules. When no other irregularities came to light, they were allowed to sail on to open water, North of Hawaii. There, a rendez-vous with satellite vessel Pyrgos was arranged. On July 25, 1988, the Pyrgos sailed from California to Hawaii, where the marihuana was loaded from the Askoy. John Hoine and Rex Olander sail the Pyrgos to the Red, White and Blue nude beach in Santa Cruz County. On August 26 and 27 1988 they meet the distribution team there. Small speedboats take the cargo to land. An innocent bystander, who was camping there, didn’t trust the activity and alarmed the police.  Upon arrival, they intervene in the smuggling operation and arrest the smugglers. With 66,5 million dollars of street value, they make a record breaking catch of a lifetime in Santa Cruz County.

The complete crew including the owner of the Pyrgos, George Contaxis, even though not present on the beach during the operation, is arrested and sued. The crew subsequently points to the Askoy as the mother ship. Around December 3, Rutten is arrested on board of the Askoy, and then anchored in the Suva Yachting Club. The ship is confiscated and parked in the harbor. Harrack and Pearson are still on the run, but soon thereafter, they are likewise arrested, Pearson while out camping in a tent.

With the crew in jail, the Askoy is awaiting years of rotting away in the harbor of Suva on the Fiji islands, without maintenance and care. The end of 1993 auctions off the ship. The happy new owner/adventurer is Lindsay Wright.

STORM at sea

In the next six months, Wright provisory prepares the ship to a level that should enable it to sail to New Zeeland, where he wants to renovate it more thoroughly. By June 1994, he sails the Askoy out of Suva. A long journey, made solo, eventually brings him in sight of the harbor, on the Tasman Sea, before the West Coast of New Zeeland. Then a storm hits him by surprise, close to the coastline. In it’s shabby state, with weakened engine, the ship is no match for the unchained elements. For two full days and nights, Wright manages to challenge the wheather, skipping sleep since he had to be on guard in case the engine would over heat.

When, in the night of Juli 6 on 7, the engine collapses, Wright cools it with seawater:

‘In two and a half hour time I managed to get away from the coastline by 5 miles. Then the water pump also collapsed. I went downstairs to fix the problem. An hour later, two enormous waves busted into the steering hut.’

Surf waves of ten meters height the capsized the ship, making it bend over. Wright fired emergency flares, grasped his bag and jumped overboard. We write 5 AM:

‘I thought I saw people with torches on top of the dunes, but I was wrong. I walked through the dunes for a full two hours, until I stumbled upon a farm, and called for help.’

The local farmers, Mr. and Mrs. Grant Acteson, first appear shocked at the scary image of sailot in dark oil coat. Once they realize what has happned, though, they shelter him. The skipper eats, drinks and grabs a few hours of sleep, before returning to the beach in order to measure the damage.

Salvage operation

interview with Piet & Staf Wittevrongel, Augustus 19, 2012.

Decennia later, the brothers Wittevrongel decide to actually salvage the wreck of the Askoy II, and have it transported to Belgium. The first emotional moment in that adventure is of course when they first visited the wreck n Baylys Beach, New Zeeland. Piet Wittevrongel: ‘Only the steel hull was still there, buried in the flood line. At low tide, is emerged a few inches from the water. A couple actually made a child on the wreck; yes, we have located them too!



interview with Peter Jansens, owner of the Nieuwe Scheldewerven in Rupelmonde, where the Askoy II is being renovated.
Left: Film of the renovation works on the Askoy II, August 19, 2012.

The apex of the operation was arguably the salvaging of the wreck. It took some years, but on December 19, 2007, the steel rump emerged from the sands, and the Askoy emerged from it’s grave. The enormous hull was dragged ashore, and eventually transported to a container ship. Thus it was taken to the harbor of Antwerp. To date, the workers of the Nieuwe Scheldewerven, Rupelmonde, are working on its restauration. The plan is still that the Askoy will eventually sail again!’