Congratulations to sailor Hilary Lister

Over the finishing line at Dover

Over the finishing line at Dover

An Oxford Biochemistry graduate has become the first disabled woman to sail solo around Britain. Hilary Lister finished her remarkable achievement on 31st August as she sailed into Dover harbour. She had been at sea for a series of 40 day-long sails.

Hilary sailed in a specially-adapted vessel which was designed to be operated through three 'straws'. These allowed her to control the boat using a 'sip-and-puff' system. A team of six provided back up throughout her sails.

The Round Britain project, which Hilary originally began in 2008, was abandoned after just two months at sea after bad weather and technical issues struck. Hilary and her team picked up the journey again from Plymouth in May this year and sailed clockwise round the country, returning successfully to Dover.

Hilary wanted to be a biochemist from an early age, following in the footsteps of her mother, Dr Pauline Rudd, now at University College Dublin. She came to Oxford to read Biochemistry in 1991. By then the progressive neurological disorder that had started to develop when she was a youngster had taken a firm hold and confined her to a wheelchair.

The Biochemistry Department and Jesus College accommodated Hilary's practical needs and she was able to attend lectures and tutorials and take part in practicals alongside her fellow students. Her tutor, Professor Stuart Ferguson, recollects that he was full of admiration for the way in which she coped with the demanding course. 'She was always cheerful and presented an exceptional role model for what can be achieved with a very severe disability.'

Hilary with her mother Pauline after completing the Round Britan sail

Hilary with her mother Pauline after completing the Round Britan sail

Hilary's main memories of Oxford are of second year practicals. By the end of the experiments, pairs of students were usually bickering, she recalls. In the case of her and her partner, they resorted to singing silly songs. She adds: 'On our last practical we put baby plastic ducks in the water baths.' But she was clearly drawn to life at the bench. 'I loved lab work in particular and relished my time doing my fourth year project.'

Outside her studies, Hilary started to explore a new feature on the computer that was beginning to interest others as well - the world-wide web. She went on to introduce it to others in the department. 'Hilary showed me this new Netscape Navigator software she had just had installed on her laptop,' says Dr Jeremy Rowntree, the department's IT Systems Manager who was teaching Hilary programming. 'It was my first contact with the web as we know it today.'

'She was always cheerful and presented an exceptional role model for what can be achieved with a very severe disability'

Hilary's condition, known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, left her in incredible pain. This became steadily worse during the four year course and she had to dictate her exam papers whilst flat on her back with an epidural drip on her spine. Despite this, she gained a 2.1.

Although offered a D.Phil position at Oxford, Hilary decided to move to the University of Kent to be near her husband. Sadly, as her condition deteriorated, she was forced to give up her more and more of her life. She could no longer continue as a biochemist and also gave up her secondary career as an accomplished clarinet teacher.

Hilary eventually became housebound and, in complete contrast to the way she had previously lived her life, spent four years inactive and dependent on others. But her life was transformed when a friend introduced her to sailing in 2003 and she soon became hooked on it.

Her passion for sailing has driven her to set herself one challenge after another. She sailed solo across the English Channel in 2005 and followed this with a solo circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight two years later.

Just two days after finishing her solo sail round Britain, Hilary was planning her next trip. 'I have a list of ideas bouncing around my head but until I reach a stage where I know what I'm going to do next I'm going to keep them to myself. I will need a bigger boat, that's all I'm saying.'





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