Milko Van Gool
Porthcawl to Glenthorne 13-7-2022
Swim time: 6hrs 25minutes
Start: Sandy Bay Porthcawl (Coney Beach)
Finish: 4 miles short of the English Coast
Observer: Tom Chapman
Swim Crew: Geena and Milan Van Gool, Marcel VD Togt
Pilot: Wild Frontier
I met Milko and his team early on Thursday 13/7/2022 at the harbor in Ilfracombe, Devon. He had chartered a catamaran called ‘Wild Frontier’ and was hoping to swim from Porthcawl Wales to Glenthorne, England across the Bristol Channel to complete the Original Triple crown, having previously swum the English and North Channels.
The boat crew brought the boat round to the dock, we loaded and stowed everything and set off for Porthcawl, a 2 hour ride up and across the channel. We arrived around 10am in Porthcawl which was very early on the tide so the crew dropped anchor and we discussed the plan for the day. Due to the draft of the boat, we would leave around two hours before low, swimming out perpendicular to the coast. This would (in theory) kink the swim track out around Nash Sands, a notorious sand bank off the Welsh coast. Previous swims have used much smaller boats able to cross the bank. A constant 10 knot wind was blowing from the west but the sun was out and the sea state didn’t look too bad.
Milko started preparing just before 11, covering himself in lanolin/vasaline mix and zinc oxide. The boat crew prepared a tender and took him to the beach, clearing the water at Sandy bay (Coney Beach) Porthcawl. He raised his arm, we sounded the ships horn and started the watch. Swim began at 11.10am.
The boat crew had also prepared a kayak and Milko’s son Milan kayaked next to him, clearing Porthcawl pier and heading out past Fairy Buoy. Wild Frontier led the way, the tender stayed in the water, escorting the kayak and the swimmer away from land. Milko settled into a rhythm and made very good speed.
The first feed took place on the hour from the Kayak. This was a mixture of carbohydrate solution in apple juice. We had slight white tops on the waves at this point but the sun was out and it was a nice day despite the breeze. Second feed was a banana on the half hour. 3rd feed on 2 hours was carbohydrate drink. The wind briefly dropped as the tide began to turn. Sea state still a little lumpy, sun out. The track had kicked out nicely to the West as expected, sending us safely round the western edge of Nash sands. Clear of the danger to the boat, the crew changed course due south and headed for England!
The tender had stayed in the water the whole time, relaying messages from the boat, slightly out front back to the kayak and the swimmer. We also used it to refuel the feeds in the kayak so the swimmer constantly had the kayak next to him. Milan managed an impressive 3.5 hours in the kayak before swapping out with one of the bat crew for a much deserved rest.
Approximately 4 hours into the swim the wind picked up to a solid force 4 westerly. Sea state was building but Milko swam on with an impressively solid and consistent stroke. The guys in the dingy and the kayak also soldiered on through the worsening sea state! We also had a close pass with a pleasure craft at about 4.30, they were heading straight for us at speed and only took action late after we blew the horn and waved our alpha!
The strong Westerly wind was pushing us rapidly East but the progress we were making, discussions were already being made with the crew and Marcel the coach regarding landing points. It looked at this stage like it would be around Porlock, east of Glenthorne and in an impressive time.
The strong force 4 continued for hours five and six, Milko swam on with the same consistency he started the swim, still making good progress south and alternating feeds between the carb drink and banana.
We noticed Milko doing a few strokes of backstroke to begin with around the 6 hour mark then the recovery of his stroke deteriorating on one side. The tender returned to the boat to tell us he thought a rogue wave had damaged his rotator cuff on one side and every stroke was becoming painful.
The boat dropped back to allow Milko and Marcel to discuss. Milko swam on with Marcel relaying to us if he can still laugh he can still swim! The next half hour was a heroic battle to stay in the swim, backstroke, one arm freestyle, as many strokes as he could take before the pain was too much. Quite difficult for the observer to take a stroke rate! It was becoming quite evident we were not making anywhere near the same forward progress and with the strength of the wind and the relentless BC tide, we were slipping further and further to the East. The coast drops away the further east you go, making the remaining distance further; we were no longer making much headway.
At 6 hours 25, the boat dropped back for a long and frank conversation between swimmer and coach. I didn’t catch much of it (being in Dutch!) but as soon as the googles were lifted off the face I could sense it was game over. 6hours 25, swim abandoned. Milko got back aboard the boat, safe and well but disappointed. A sensible decision to save the shoulder to fight another day. We stowed the kit and headed back to Ilfracombe.