David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ Stories: Rescued hulk's colourful past

From Cape Reinga to the Bluff, the New Zealand Herald's epic roadtrip has begun! To celebrate the Herald's 150th anniversary we're on the hunt for your greatest stories.

The hulk of the Askoy II is dug from the sands of Baylys Beach in 2007.
The hulk of the Askoy II is dug from the sands of Baylys Beach in 2007.

Drugs, a Belgian singing star and a bizarre effort to rescue a rusted hulk of a boat from halfway around the world.

This was the unlikely tale that unfolded at the Funky Fish in Baylys Beach, north of Dargaville, when the NZ Herald Greatest Stories team stopped for a beer.

A lot of stories are told over a beer which don't hold together in the light of day. In the case of the Askoy II, it all checked out - and got even better with a few facts.

Pete O'Neill, 47, says the Askoy II turned up south of Baylys Beach in the middle of winter in 1994. It was being sailed south from Suva, Fiji, where it had been moored since being seized after police found 12 tonnes of Thai marijuana on board.

It was abandoned there for five years until Taranaki journalist-turned-sailor Lindsay Wright turned up with a plan to sail to New Zealand and restore the Askoy II.

"In the middle of the storm the motor conked out," says Mr O'Neill. Askoy II was pushed ashore. "The boat was a writeoff."

And there it sat, scoured by sand and surf for 13 years. The interior was lost to the elements - and to those scavenging and salvaging along the coast. Before long, it was nothing more than a rusted 20-metre hulk.

The wreck served as a good landmark for locals directing tourists along the beach. They had measured it out as a 3km walk, there and back. Some days, much of the yacht was exposed. On other days, the sands covered all but the bow.

Then, in 2007, Piet and Staf Wittevrongel turned up. The brothers, similar looking, were easily distinguished by their height - one was 7ft, the other 7ft 2in. They arrived with a plan to recover the Askoy II, says Mr O'Neill. "They came here and dug the mother out of the beach and put it on a truck to Belgium."

It took three days, a lot of diggers, cranes and a Canute-style wall to keep the tide out of the works.

Meanwhile, the distinctively tall brothers were popular figures at the local bar. They left with a yacht and a whole bunch of new friends.

The Askoy II, it turned out, was once the property of one of Belgium's favourite sons, singer and songwriter Jacques Brel. Apparently this is important.

Built in 1959 for Belgian architect Hugo van Kuyck, the yacht was named for an island off the Norwegian coast. He sailed the yacht for 14 years, selling it to Brel, who was apparently an influence on David Bowie and Leonard Cohen.

Brel sailed it to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia and sold it in 1976. It passed through a number of owners over the next decade, including one who sailed it through New Zealand to Hawaii.

Then, after more than 30 years at sea, Askoy II was used for a grand drug-running operation which was foiled in Fiji. And from there, it was wrecked in New Zealand.

The return trip cost about $100,000, according to a website set up to fundraise to rebuild the yacht. The Wittevrongel brothers, who came out to New Zealand, have since welcomed a number of locals from Baylys Beach who have turned up in Europe and made contact.

Mr O'Neill and wife Erica visited a few years back.

Pete and Raewyn Douglas were there in June. The rust had been scraped off, chunks cut out and new bits welded in. Askoy II has a new paint job and awaits more money to complete a return to glory.

Mrs Douglas says: "It was really important to the Belgian people."

Your story

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- NZ Herald

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