Quadriplegic Attempts Solo Sail Around British Isles

Follow Lister's Adventures

On Monday, Hilary Lister launched a solo sail around the British Isles. She expects it will take three to four months to sail the 1,600 miles.

Lister is 36 years old — and a quadriplegic. She has a progressive and painful neurological disease called reflex sympathetic dystrophy and is able to move only her head, eyes and mouth.

To sail the boat, she uses straws and what she calls a "sip-and-puff" system. Lister described the technique to NPR's Melissa Block during a break day in Brighton, England.

How It Works

Lister says she uses three straws for different motions. For lateral movement, she puffs into the straw that controls the tiller to go port, or left, and she sips from it to go starboard, or right. Another straw allows her to move the sails at the same time. And the third straw is what Lister calls a "magic straw," where she can choose between five or six different functions, including changing the size of the sail.

A crew is following Lister on her adventure to ensure she doesn't tip — although she says she stays upright in a specially designed seat — and give her food.

"I like them to be as far away as possible, a quarter or half a mile," Lister says. "They like to be quite a lot closer just for safety sake."

She says she can manage when she needs a drink, and when she has to go to the bathroom, she holds it.

"It's that simple," she says. "You just have to wait."

Her Long Journey

Lister says sailing saved her life.

Active as a child, she began feeling pain in her legs at age 11 and lost the ability to walk at 15. She was later diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy and gradually lost almost all movement. In 2003, Lister says, she had not left her house for three months, and she "couldn't cope with just sitting at home doing nothing, waiting to die." She admits she considered euthanasia by overdosing on morphine.

Then a friend of hers suggested she go sailing. Within days, Lister was out on a boat on a lake.

"And within about 30 seconds, I knew that I found what I was going to do with the rest of my life," she says.

In 2005, Lister became the first quadriplegic to sail solo across the English Channel.

Transcending Her Pain

One of the great benefits of sailing, Lister says, is that the pain in her body is diminished when she goes out on the water.

"The motion of the boat is the only sort of motion I feel that isn't painful," Lister says. "I'm so occupied with the sailing that it transcends the pain a bit."

Plus, she says, the scenery is beautiful.

"I had my first night sailing experience, and I think that's something no sailor ever forgets, really," she says. "The moon was full, and the sky was clear, and the lights from Eastbourne were twinkling. It was just stunningly beautiful. There was almost no wind, so I could just sit back and enjoy it."

And when her latest expedition is complete, hopefully by September, Lister says she'll be ready for the next challenge.

"The Atlantic [Ocean] is kind of calling," she says.

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