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With a 'sip and a puff' quadriplegic sailor makes history

  • Story Highlights
  • Hilary Lister has become the first disabled woman to sail around Britain
  • She navigated with a special technology using only her mouth and a straw
  • Hilary suffers from a rare degenerative disease that has made her paraplegic
  • She wants to help other disabled sailors through her charity Hilary's Dream Trust
By Paul Willis
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When they set sail from harbor most yachtsmen leave only their worries behind. But when Hilary Lister goes out to sea, she sheds an entire way of life.

The 36-year-old uses a special technology known as "sip and puff" to control her boat.

Hilary Lister says she feels "a thousand times" more free when she sails.

The 36-year-old Briton is a quadriplegic who can only move her head, eyes and mouth and needs to rely on carers for almost every need.

In spite of these restrictions she became the first disabled woman to sail solo around Britain Monday scoring a victory against the rare degenerative illness she has suffered from since age 11.

The inventive technology behind her voyage is called "sip and puff" -- a system of three pneumatic straws positioned near Lister's mouth that allow her to control the boat through a series of semaphore-like commands she can give by either blowing or sucking through the straws.

Developed by a Canadian engineer, the system let Lister alter course and trim the sails of her 20ft long keel boat to complete the record-breaking trip over two summers.

Lister's passion for sailing is all-consuming and, considering what it has given her, unsurprising.

"When you leave the quayside, you leave behind the stresses of everyday life," she told CNN. "Any sailor will tell you that.

"If you multiply that sense of freedom a thousand times, that's how I feel. I leave behind my wheelchair, a team of carers and suddenly it's just me."

An Oxford University graduate and talented sportswoman in her youth, by 2003 Hilary's illness had laid her so low she was a virtual recluse, never leaving the home she shared with her husband Clifford, and by her own admission deeply depressed.

A friend suggested she go to Westbere Sailing. The center specializes in helping disabled people on to the water, but Hilary almost never made the 20-minute trip from her home near Canterbury in southern England.

"I was ill and running a temperature and I was about to cancel it, but something stopped me from backing out," she said.

She credits the decision to go to the center with saving her life. "[The staff]treated me like an intelligent, capable person and not like an object to be pitied," she said.

Her illness is called reflex sympathetic dystrophy. It makes it difficult for her to breathe -- the media interviews she has done since her latest achievement have exhausted her, she said. It also puts her in near-constant agony, a situation that is only manageable with the use of powerful drugs.

Despite these hardships, or perhaps because of them, Hilary has no fear when she is out at sea.

Her aim is to help other disabled people feel empowered in the same way and to that end she has set up her own charity, Hilary's Dream Trust. The charity exists to provide assistance to disabled and disadvantaged adults who dream of sailing.

"It is difficult to do all the press, my diaphragm is in a bad way and I get tired easily with the interviews. But I want people to know my story because it's important they realize disabled people can accomplish anything, given the right tools."

Her own accomplishment she began last summer with the help of a support boat and a specially adapted motor home that she returned to after each day's sailing to recuperate.

Last August she was forced to abandon the attempt due to bad weather and strong winds. She took up the gauntlet again in May and was rewarded with some transcendent moments.

"When I was in the Irish Sea I saw something that looked like a blow hole on my starboard side," she said. "I wasn't sure what I'd seen then suddenly out of the water this huge whale emerged like an Exocet missile. Next thing a pod of them -- we think they were humpbacks -- were all around my boat.

"I remember thinking, 'I wonder if this is safe' but I was enjoying the moment so much. It was so exhilarating."

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