Disabled Sailor

“Sailing saved my life!”

Hilary Lister a disabled sailor is the first female quadriplegic to sail solo around Britain. She was 37 years old when she defied the odds to complete her solo voyage, no mean feat for this courageous young woman!

Hilary suffers from a rare, progressive neurological disorder that has left her paralysed from the neck down and can only move her head, eyes and mouth.  Enduring physical pain and frustration…. Her body unable to function she said… “Sailing saved my life”.

As a teenager while studying to be a biochemist in Oxford, Kent she experienced the first signs of the disease with shooting pains in her legs.  She married in 1999 and by that time she had begun to lose the use of her hands and arms and was confined to her house in a wheelchair.

Introduced to Sailing:

It was 2003 when a friend introduced her to sailing!  She was told of a center that specializes in helping the disabled sailor on to the water and she credits the decision to go to the centre with saving her life. 

 "The staff treated me like an intelligent, capable person and not like an object to be pitied," she said.” Disabled people can accomplish anything, given the right tools."

Lister's passion for sailing is all-consuming and, considering what it has given her, unsurprising.

Sip and Puff System:

As a disabled sailor and no feeling from the neck down how can she possibly sail you may ask! 

She has perfected a "sip and puff" system, developed by Steve Alvey of Canada…. using three straws that are connected to sensitive pressure switches to change the boat's direction, control the sails and the boom. 

A computer is mounted in front of Hilary. This was the first time it had been tested in such challenging conditions.

A gentle sip on one straw will cause the boat to go to starboard, while a puff will take the boat to port. The second straw controls the winch motor for both sails in a similar fashion. The third straw allows her to control her Raymarine autopilot, to trim one sail relative to the other and raise or lower the height of the boom.

Her boat ‘Me Too’ is an Artemis 20, a 6 metre carbon fibre keelboat designed by Rogers Yacht Design.

History for Disabled Sailor:

  • By 2005 she made history becoming the first quadriplegic to sail solo across the English Channel.  These attempts were not all smooth sailing but on more than one occasion halted due to weather and technical difficulties as well as her own health issues as a disabled sailor.
  • In 2009 she sailed into the record books on her solo sail round Britain.  She not only battled the elements but also exhaustion and the severe limitations of her body.  She undertook a series of 40 day-long sails to complete this marathon voyage and crossed the finish line to a cheering crowd.

Inspiring & Brave:

Some of the comments of this incredibly brave young woman give you an insight into her inspiring attitude……

  • "When you leave the quayside, you leave behind the stresses of everyday life," Hilary said "Any sailor will tell you that."
  • "If you multiply that sense of freedom a thousand times, that's how I feel. I leave behind my wheelchair, a team of carers and suddenly it's just me."
  • "In terms of experiences … we had some incredible receptions from people who had waited hours to watch us come in," she said as she arrived in Ramsgate ahead of the final 15-mile leg to Dover.

  • "I'm probably fitter than when I left and almost certainly in better health. Sailing makes me happy, it gives me a reason to get up in the morning – but at the same time I am absolutely kippered."

  • "It's a privilege to be back in Dover," she said from her boat at the quayside. "The killer was when the wind died just east of the entrance to the harbour but unbelievably it picked up just as I sailed in."

  • The high lights of her voyage were the marine life seen at close quarters. "Just seeing whales 35ft long fully breached out of the water was incredible," she said. "Two of them jumped like dolphins, it was amazing."

  • "I'm so relieved to be home but looking forward to the next challenge," she said before a bottle of celebratory champagne was opened. "One thing I've learnt is that you can't predict the future, we couldn't even predict tomorrow's weather so I'm not ruling anything out or anything in."
  • "When I was in the Irish Sea I saw something that looked like a blow hole on my starboard side," she said. "I wasn't sure what I'd seen then suddenly out of the water this huge whale emerged like an Exocet missile. Next thing a pod of them -- we think they were humpbacks -- were all around my boat.

  • "I remember thinking, 'I wonder if this is safe' but I was enjoying the moment so much. It was so exhilarating."

Hilary gives motivational talks to groups from all walks of life both nationally and internationally.

She hopes to have raised £30,000 UK pounds from her voyage for her charity, Hilary's Dream Trust, which assists a disabled sailor and disadvantaged adults who want to sail.

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