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Hilary Lister

“Sailing feels like flying,” Hilary Lister said, “It’s the only time I feel like myself.”

Hilary, has been using a wheelchair since she was 15 years old and slowly became paralysed from the neck down during her early 20s but this did not stop her sailing solo around Britain in 2009.

The feat was the latest in a string of sailing achievements, including crossing the English Channel in 2005 and circumnavigating the Isle of Wight two years later.

“I started sailing in 2003 at a local lake,” said Hilary, who lives near Canterbury.

“Finding sailing was huge for me; I can’t describe it. If you’re in a wheelchair and have the inability to do even the basic things – such as brushing the hair out of your eyes or scratching your nose – sailing is the most indescribable feeling.”

Hilary had been very active as a child, enjoying hockey, rugby and fencing. When she was 11 years old she started getting chronic knee pain and, assuming it was growing pains, took up swimming as an alternative. By 15 she was in a wheelchair and had to leave school.

She was later diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), which meant she would gradually begin to lose the use of almost all of her body whilst still leaving her in incredible pain.

She said: “I did my GCSEs at home; my A levels I did from a school in Oxfordshire that took me in after somewhere else chucked me out; and I did my biochemistry degree at Jesus College, Oxford, flat on my back with a morphine drip in my spine.”

From1999,  Hilary was paralysed from the neck down. Her first solo sailing trip was on a boat that had been fitted with technology from her electric wheelchair. It is steered and the sails are controlled by puffing into tubes.

Just two years after first going sailing as a passenger, and only two-and-a-half hours practice at the helm, Hilary made history by becoming the first quadriplegic to sail solo across the Channel. And then, in August 2009, she became the first disabled woman to sail solo around Britain.

“The plan now is to go ocean racing,” Hilary said. “That means building a boat from scratch because there is nothing existing that comes close to what we need. I’m realistically looking at 2013 for my first race.”

Her later adventures included sailing across the Arabian Sea with a crew in 2014.

Sadly, Hilary passed away in August 2018.

The Award of Honorary Doctor of Staffordshire University is bestowed upon Hilary in recognition of her achievements and determination to rise above her challenges as well for being an inspiration to others.

Photo of Hilary Lister

Hilary Lister was bestowed the award in 2010

I couldn’t quite believe it when I was offered an honorary doctorate. I’m amazed that the University thinks what I do inspires people and changes their lives and, if that’s the case, then I’ve more than done my job and I’m extremely proud to be awarded an honorary doctorate.

Hilary Lister