Conquering Life and the Ocean’s Seven
Writer / Janelle Morrison • Photographer / JJ Kaplan
The quest began more than 25 years ago when Zionsville resident Jim Barber decided that he wanted to become part of an elite group of swimmers to achieve the Ocean’s Seven. The Ocean’s Seven consists of seven long-distance open-water swims and is considered the marathon swimming equivalent of the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge. The challenge includes the English Channel, Catalina Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Molokai Channel, Cook Strait, Tsugaru Strait and the North Channel. Barber has completed three of the seven swims upon first attempt. He is preparing for his fourth, the Cook Strait in the Southern Hemisphere.
Swimming began as a means to escape childhood bullying for Barber. As a young child, Barber had a hearing disability that went undiagnosed until he was 10 years old. He began swimming at his local YMCA at age 9 where he found peace and purpose. It turned out that he was quite gifted at the sport, and as he puts it, he became the “Forest Gump of swimming” in his town. Barber said, “You can’t hear anybody, and you don’t have to speak to anybody when your head is in the water.”
Barber and his swimming coach, “Coach B,” would train at the YMCA and throughout his school years where Barber gained much recognition as an accomplished swimmer.
“When I started excelling at swimming, it turned me into a different person,” Barber said. “Instead of being bullied, I was being recognized for being an athlete. Coach B was one of the best coaches that I ever had. He and I remained in contact until his passing two years ago. He developed solid and sound-minded athletes. Today, I find motivation in what I call the 3 Ns. I live by them. First, never go it alone; surround yourself with people who will support you. Second, never give up; you have to look at each day that is a loss as an opportunity to learn from and keep going forward. Lastly, nothing great comes easy.”
A typical training routine for one of these swims runs about 12 weeks long. Barber will swim 60 miles a week. The training includes spring and fall acclimations to prepare his body for acclimating in cold water. Most of the ocean waters that Barber swims in are below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. His typical caloric intake and burn is between 4,500-6,000 calories.
“It is important to take care of your body,” Barber emphasized. “Anybody can physically get ready for an athletic event, but it’s the mental part that keeps them from doing it. In anything that you want to pursue, 40 percent of it is getting your body ready for it, and the other 60 percent is attitude and telling yourself, ‘Yes, I can do this.’
“I question myself some days on why I do this. I wake up and wonder why I am going to go swim across this stupid body of water? Then when I get into the thick of it, I recommit to what I am about to do and tell myself that I am going to get through it. When I’m in the middle of these swims, out in the middle of nowhere with my crew a half-mile ahead of me, I start thinking about the pain that I’m dealing with and about how other people in my life endured their pain. If they got through theirs, I’m going to get through mine.”
Each swim has an association that governs the body of water. Barber has a contact person who serves as the representative of the respective association. The representative coordinates the boats, crews and witnesses. Witnesses are required on these swims to ensure that the swimmer is obeying the rules and regulations established and to document the swim.
“Many of these are night swims,” Barber explained. “When I swam the Molokai Channel, we began at 9 p.m. and ended at 11 a.m. the following day. It was pretty freaky. The boat was ¼ mile up front, and the kayaker stayed back with me. Basically, I didn’t see anything except for the light off of the back of the boat.”
The light source is intentionally limited so as not to attract any of the predatory creatures lurking in the same waters as Barber.
“I swim up to the boat to get water and liquid nutrition by a hand toss back and forth to the crew. They throw out a water bottle, and I toss it back up to them. No physical contact is permitted. I cannot touch the person handing me the water, and I can’t hang on to the boat. The boats out in front of me are responsible for navigating the crew and me across the body of water and for communicating with the Coast Guard officials or any of the big freight liners that are passing through. The acoustical sound in water carries a long way, and when I hear these things coming my way, it sounds like that they are right on top of me.
“There are other challenges that occur on these swims. I once had a crew that didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Spanish, so during the pre-swim briefing, the representative from the association who spoke English, myself and the crew came up with hand signals to effectively communicate through the course of the swim.”
Barber completed the English Channel (England to France) in a tandem solo with Brian Boggs, also a Zionsville resident. They completed the 21 miles in 9:06 hours. The fastest recorded time is 7 hours. Barber pointed out that this swim has a fairly high failure rate with a 30 percent success rate. He added that this is the one swim that most people want to complete as a right of passage as long-distance or marathon swimmers.
Among the many challenges that Barber has endured throughout his career swims, he occasionally has to contend with the wild life that is swimming along with him. During his swim in the Molokai Channel, he got entangled with two Portuguese Man-of-War. It was at night, so he could not see them to avoid their long tentacles and was stung.
“You get shocked and you scream, then you get over it in about 30 minutes,” Barber recalled. “Obviously, if someone is stung multiple times, that could become a precarious and potentially lethal situation, but it is difficult to avoid them when you can’t seem them.”
Barber holds many national and international records. He currently is the record holder for the Straits of Gibraltar swim (Spain to Morocco) where he finished it in 7:49 hours in 2011 and is one of only nine swimmers in the world to complete a double crossing.
Next on his list, Barber will be preparing to cross the Cook Strait in 2017. It is 14 miles between North and South New Zealand.
“This one will be the most dangerous and most unpredictable waters out of all of them,” Barber said. “It is so far in the Southern Hemisphere that the tides are constantly dramatically changing. There is an abundance of predatory fish and sharks in this region as well. One of the first questions I asked was if anyone has ever been pulled out for shark attacks, and the answer is no, not to this day.”
Looking ahead, Barber plans to complete the Tsugaru Strait in Japan and complete his quest by crossing the North Channel. The North Channel will be the coldest waters at 54-58 degrees Fahrenheit.
For now, Barber will continue to train at his local pool and in various bodies of water in Indiana such as Morse Reservoir.
“We’ve got a good opportunity, if anyone is interested in training for marathon swimming, to train here at some of the bodies of water in Indiana,” Barber said. “I am 56 years old, and I want to maintain my health and want to be able to do these swims for a long time to come.”
In his spare time, Barber owns a remodeling and improvements business, Housewurks Custom Homes and Renovations. The discipline and perseverance that he exudes in his swims are applied in every aspect of his life, personally and professionally. He is extremely goal-oriented.
“I treat my projects like I do my swims,” he concluded. “I’m not finished until I get out on the other side of it. I think that it’s important in our daily lives to have a set of objectives and goals. You have to wake up to something.”