Record-breaking British sailor Hilary Lister, the first quadriplegic person to sail solo across the English Channel, has died aged 46.

Hilary lived with the progressive condition reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and began using a wheelchair at the age of 15. She would study biochemistry at Jesus College, Oxford, and begin a PhD at the University of Kent in 1996 – but was unable to complete it after she became paralysed from the neck down in 1999. The University of Kent presented her with an honorary doctorate instead.

In 2003 she was introduced to sailing, which changed her life and gave her “new meaning and purpose.” A mere two years later, Hilary would become the first quadriplegic person to sail solo across the English Channel, completing the journey in six hours and 13 minutes. Her boat used sip-and-puff technology, which allowed her control over its steering and sails. The same year, she was awarded the Sunday Times Helen Rollason Award for Inspiration.

In 2007, she became the first quadriplegic woman to sail solo around the Isle of Wight, which she did in 11 hours and four minutes, and a year later would make her first attempt to sail solo around Great Britain. Setting off on 16 June, she was forced to suspend the attempt almost two months later on 13 August due to technical problems and bad weather.

Hilary was not dissuaded and on 21 May 2009, set off again from Plymouth, finally becoming the first disabled woman to sail solo around Britain upon her arrival at Dover on the evening of 31 August in the same year. The International Sailing Federation announced that this put her in the top four sailors in the world.

Hilary’s passing was announced on her charity’s website on Saturday. Hilary’s Dream Trust was established by her to help disabled or financially disadvantaged adults get involved in sailing.

Donations can be made to the charity here.


Image: Flickr/Magnus Bråth


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