Hilary Lister, the disabled yachtswoman who sailed solo around Great Britain using a sip-and-puff steering system, has died aged 46

“When I’m sailing I go into a different world…it’s like flying.” This is how Hilary Lister described sailing, a sport she discovered in her thirties that took her beyond the limitations of her disability. She went on to become one of the sport’s most inspirational solo sailors.

Born able-bodied, she developed a degenerative condition, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, at the age of 15. Yet her increasing disabilities did not stop her from striving for her goals – she studied biochemistry at Oxford, though during this time lost the use of her legs and had to use a wheelchair. She went on to study for a PhD, but in 1999 lost the use of her arms and was unable to finish her doctorate.

The same year, she married Clifford Lister, a musical director, teacher and soloist.

In 2003, she was introduced to sailing at Westbere Sailing Opportunities near Canterbury.

“Within 30 seconds of being in a boat I was in love”, she said. But she found being unable to control the boat herself frustrating and decided to find a way to helm herself. She had also been following the exploits of Emma Richards, who was racing solo round the world in the Around Alone race, and decided she would find a way to sail solo across the Channel.

With the help of the UK Sailing Academy in Cowes and Emma Richards’s sponsor, Andrew Pindar (who became an indefatigable supporter of Lister), a Soling was adapted to be sailed using the sip-puff mouth controls that Lister used on her wheelchair. In 2007, she sailed alone round the Isle of Wight, and round the coast of Britain from Plymouth to Dover in 2009.

“As we got to know her more and more her bravery and zest shone through,” commented Andrew Pindar. ‘[That was] exemplified by her rocking up at the Extreme Sailing Series and persuading Olly Smith and Nick Crabtree to strap her to the trampoline before heading out for hull-flying, smile-inducing spins.

‘In 2014 an ocean crossing beckoned as she sailed from Mumbai to Muscat, with a necessary crew this time, on Albert Whitley’s Dragonfly trimaran using a sip and puff system installed by Roger Crabtree.’

Between these voyages, she founded Hilary’s Dream Trust, to help other disabled and disadvantaged adults realise similar ambitions.

Lister won many awards and accolades for her achievements, including a Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards and the Royal Cruising Club’s Seamanship Award. Her stepson, Alex Lister, commented on her life: “My stepmother was the definition of an inspirational woman. I never heard her complain once about her condition or the hand life dealt her. Instead, she turned a challenge into an opportunity and achieved things able-bodied people can only dream of.

“Her strength of character and desire to make the world a better place for others is a huge source of motivation for me personally. If I can make half the positive impact on the world that she did, I will be a very happy man.”