Jacques Brel was a man who spent half of his life telling people he was actually Belgian not French and the other half inspiring the future of music with his truly singular sound. It can be said that without Brel there would be no Scott Walker and without Walker, there would be no David Bowie, and therefore his reverberating influence is impossible to escape – solidified in music forever. But what of the enigmatic man himself?
Well, it says a lot about him that he felt most at home when he didn’t have one, rudderless in the open ocean, drifting away from all the fanfare that surrounded him on land. He might have been the sort of workhorse on dry land who toiled throughout the arts in such a way that he was able to assert the following without smiths of heavy industry branding him ignorant: “My trade is a lonely one. I’m a craftsman, if you like. It so happens that these days singers are better paid than blacksmiths.”
Thus, when he got a chance to tear away from his music and film work, it was pure aimless peace that he sought. As Ernest Hemingway once said of sailing, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” When Brel bought the Askoy II, a 19-meter yawl in 1974, it was his own journey’s end that he was thinking about. In 1973 it had become clear that he was very ill, and he decided to devote his final years to his passion for sailing.
Once his boat was purchased and his will was sorted his next action was to plan a voyage circumnavigating the globe. In July, he embarked on the first leg of his trip with his new partner Maddly Bamy and his daughter France. His first spot was among his favourite: the Azores. Perched in the middle of the Atlantic these near-secret islands of adventure are the stuff of childhood fiction.
Rising from nowhere but the open water, the towering archipelago of volcanic islands offers up a mystic allure like no other. If boating comes with a sense of discovery, then the Azores are the ultimate find. Not only do dolphins and whales adorn nature at its purest, but with vineyards amid the black lava fields, it’s easy to see why Brel revelled in this World Heritage mystery.
Sadly, while there, he was informed of the passing of his old friend Jojo and he returned home to France for the funeral. Not long later, Brel would learn that he was suffering from an advanced stage of lung cancer. He shrugged that off with the same effortless lust for life as everything else he approached and was back on the boat soon after.
As soon as he was passed fit, he spent 27-days at sea before anchoring in the Fort-de-France Bay. From February until July of 1975, he cruised around the West Indies, enjoying all the sun, sea and silken sand that the islands have to offer. Throughout this time, friends and family from his wild life would often come aboard. In fact, even his surgeon took the trip. After all, following serious surgery, here he was the one sailor in a three-person crew with nothing other than a sheet of canvas and the wind to guide him.
As idyllic as this period sounds, he still had his eyes set on his own personal paradise—a little place called the Land of Men in Marquesas. It was here where the artist Paul Gauguin had gone before him—some bohemian paradise where beyond the serenity of Bora-Bora’s crystal sands, the world offers nothing but pure peace to write, paint or whistle away under the azure blue firmament.
Located in French Polynesia, somewhere in the 6,900 open blue miles between New Zealand and Mexico, Brel found his paradise. After two months at sea, passing through the Panama Canal and chartering tricky waters, the ailing man and his loving Bamy finally docked their sailboat in Fatu Hiva.
However, the humdrum welcome of delegates proved so displeasing to Brel that he immediately got back on the boat and headed to the end of the world, Hiva Oa, the last green and yellow stop before endless blue. Weary and broken, this land seemed almost fateful. Here, left in peace and azure harmony, Bamy was able to convince him to take a break. It was a break that would prove to be his last.
When he flung down his bags, he basked in the catharsis of his own personal paradise and bought a house where he lived out the remainder of his days, writing, accepting friendly visitors, and volunteering as a plane-taxi driver (his plane was named Jojo in honour of his late friend; in fitting fashion, it saved many lives in medical emergencies). When a newly married American couple disembarked from a cruise, they got talking to Brel about his trusted boat and he offered it to them for a pittance simply so that it could fare the seas once more.
With his health failing, he rushed back to France. He spent the summer in the Riviera and sadly died in the autumn of 1978. After his death, his body was flown back out to Marquesas where he is buried on Hiva Oa. Not much remains of Brel on the island. His house was destroyed as per his wishes when he died to keep the integrity of the island tourist hotspot free. What remains, is the timeless sense of escapism that he dearly relished. As Hemingway also once wrote: “The sea is the same as it has been since before men ever went on it in boats.”