Speed Read: Swimmer Jim Barber Is Sea Worthy

Meet the local swimmer on one of the world’s hardest quests.

1. The ultimate accomplishment for long-distance swimmers is called the Oceans Seven, the world’s most challenging open-water swims. Five people have completed all of them. This month, Zionsville’s Jim “The Barge” Barber, 54, will attempt to cross Hawaii’s Molokai Channel, the fourth leg of his mission to become the club’s oldest member.
2. Barber will swim in memory of his friend and competitor Chris Clarke. The 45-year-old Carmel man died during a two-mile race at Eagle Creek on June 22, with Barber watching from a paddleboard about 100 yards away. Barber’s swim will raise money for the Indy-based Verbal Behavior Center for Autism.
3. Clarke’s death rattled Barber so much that he underwent a series of cardiac tests. They uncovered an aortic aneurysm, a bulge in the artery that could burst because its walls are stretched thin. His doctor cleared him to swim the channel’s 26 miles anyway, knowing that a crew always goes along to monitor the swimmer’s health.
4. Barber and his training partner, 48-year-old Victoria Rian, planned to start at 4 a.m. Hawaii time on October 5 and swim west 12 to 14 hours to avoid strong winds and choppy seas at night. But Mother Nature forced them to change course. Currents and conditions dictate that they dive in at 10 p.m. on October 4 and swim overnight.
5. The rules are strict: no wetsuits or gear, just a swim cap, goggles, and a standard suit (nothing below the knee or above the waist for men). But Barber can coat his body with “wool fat” to prevent chafing. It’s a heavy lanolin substance that he compares to axle grease.
6. The swimmers can’t touch their crew, the boat, or each other. They may roll onto their backs so crew members can toss them a bottled drink.
7. Barber has already completed the English Channel, Southern California’s Catalina Channel, and the Strait of Gibraltar. The hardest swim was the English Channel, a frigid 58 degrees with waves up to eight feet tall. At 75 degrees, Molokai presents other dangers: venomous Portuguese men-of-war—and the s-word. “Let’s not talk about that,” Barber says.
8. After several hours in saltwater, Barber’s tongue swells, his whole face puffs up, his muscles and joints ache, and his forearm tendons “get massively swollen.” He puts himself in a meditative state, like an out-of-body experience, to deal with the physical and mental pain.
9. Barber swims year-round but kicks into high gear 12 weeks out. During peak training, he logs 50 to 55 miles a week in pools and lakes around Indianapolis—often after dark to prepare for a potential overnight swim—and burns up to 5,000 calories a day.
10. He hopes to attempt one Oceans Seven swim at least every three years to complete the quest by age 64, when he will likely become the oldest person to cross the seven seas. “It’s a bucket list,” he says. “If you don’t have goals, life becomes pretty dull.”