The North Channel is the strait between the northeastern part of Northern Ireland and the southwestern portion of Scotland. It connects the Irish Sea with the Atlantic Ocean and has a rich maritime history ranging from the Revolutionary War to the Princess Victoria ferry disaster of 1953.
What does that mean to you and me? Likely not much, unless you're a history major or a sea captain regularly servicing Great Britain and Ireland. But to Forest Grove's Rijl Barber, it's a challenge she can't turn her back on.
Barber, 38, is planning to swim the channel late next month. If successful, she'll be only the 35th person to do so solo, and just the fourth American.
"I am hoping to show my teenage son and my students that if we set goals, work hard and persevere, anyone can participate in an adventure and do great things," said Barber, a speech therapist who works for the Forest Grove School District.
Born and raised in Bellingham, Wash., Barber began swimming as a kid, competed for a club in middle school and then swam for her high school in the late 1990s.
Since then, she'd done little more than swim recreationally until a few years back, when she decided to rekindle her competitive fire.
In 2017, Barber set a goal of doing the Portland Bridge Swim, an 11-mile race beginning at the Sellwood Bridge, proceeding north, then finishing 12 bridges later beneath the St. John's Bridge. It went well.
Later that summer, while visiting her aunt at her home on Lough Arrow in County Sligo, Ireland, Barber started swimming out to a highland in the middle of the lake.
"My aunt was very encouraging, but also a little nervous," Barber said. "Nobody they knew of at the time had done it, so they were very proud."
From there, she competed in a short swim, and some of the women in the area told her about the Channel swim. Barber knew little about it, but she started to do some research and decided that it might be a fun thing to try.
Barber has always liked a challenge.
"I like to set goals for myself," she said. "It keeps you positive and your brain going. It's a healthy way to live."
Last summer, Barber swam 13 miles around Mercer Island outside of Seattle, then completed a 10-mile river swim in Tennessee last fall. Since then, she's been training, swimming nearly every day at Henry L. Hagg Lake in the 54-degree temperature that — at least for now — mimics what she'll experience in the North Channel this coming June.
Temperature — swimmers in the Channel can't wear a wetsuit, one of the challenge's quirks — is just one of the handful of concerns facing Barber. Other concerns include jellyfish, eating, expenses and the obvious — she's never done it.
The Channel swim is roughly 22 miles, give or take dependent upon winds and tides. As of now, the longest Barber has swam in a single clip was the 13 miles around Mercer Island. She'll remedy that May 26, she hopes, when she swims around Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, which at 25.5 miles is slightly longer than the North Channel itself. It will be her last trial run before the "main event," the week of June 24 to June 29, and will hopefully prepare her for the challenge ahead.
"It should give me a pretty good idea as to what I'm facing," Barber said.
She's had her share of hiccups along the way, including skin irritants that often come with an inordinate amount of time in the water, and a bout with joint pain, including in her wrists, hands, knees, elbows and ankles.
"They (rheumatologists) wonder if it's training or stress-induced, because they see it in athletes," Barber said. "It flares up, so that's a worry as the swim approaches. In the pool, I felt it in the wrist and hands, and one night my arm was 25 percent bigger than normal from swelling."
While expected, Barber said expenses are adding up. One doesn't "just swim the Channel" — you need a series of people and products, including large items like a pilot boat ($4,500) and crew, an observer ($500), along with smaller ones like SPOT trackers, feeding lines, dry-wipe whiteboards and markers, and more, not to mention airfare and lodging, which can last up to a week due to unpredictable and ever-changing weather conditions. In all, it's likely to add up to more than $10,000. Barber said she's managing, but she admitted she is hoping to offset some of the costs with local sponsorships and donations.
"My friend was like, 'You have to do crowd-sourcing,' but I don't really know anything about that," Barber said. "I just started sending letters to local businesses looking for support."
Where she has seen support is from her friends; her 15-year-old son, Tiernan; and students. While not always sensible, Barber's fourth-graders have provided a source of motivation that have helped her through the rigors of training, and likely those that will come with the swim itself.
"The kids at school are really sweet — they think I can do it in 10 hours, and the record is 9:35," she said with a chuckle. "I told them I'm hoping for 13, 14 hours."
Now, nearly two years into this endeavor and less than two months from the moment of truth, how does Barber feel about her prospects to conquer the Channel? Good, for the most part. She's completed a couple long training swims over the past couple weekends and hopes to tackle 20 miles this weekend, if she can get the support. Her primary concern revolves around food and getting the necessary amount of nutrients, while limited to consuming it only in liquid form. That's nother reason the Bainbridge swim will be so important.
Ultimately, Barber thinks she is in a good place. She has her goal, the support of her family and friends, and the drive to finish what she started nearly two years ago.
"The three big challenges for long open-water swims are physical abilities, the mental factor and then there's always the weather," Barber said. "I can't control the weather, but I'm really working on the other two pieces of the puzzle. Hopefully that will be enough."
If you're interested in supporting Rijl Barber's swim, you can contact her via her blog at rijlswims.com.
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