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'I love being alone on the water'

By Hilary Lister for CNN

The "sip-puff" system enables Lister to control the boat's direction and speed by blowing into straws.



Medical research
Technology (general)

(CNN) -- Hilary Lister, 33, suffers from a degenerative form of the disorder 'reflex sympathetic dystrophy'. In August 2005 she became the first quadriplegic sailor to cross the English Channel -- the longest solo voyage by a quadriplegic sailor.

I started to lose the use of my legs when I was 11. I was very active as a child, playing hockey and rugby, but when I started getting sore knees I just ignored it, thinking it was growing pains. By the time I was 15 I couldn't even put one leg in front of the other.

It wasn't until about six or seven years ago that I really lost the use of my hands. Having been so active as a paraplegic -- being able to drive, swim and play the clarinet -- it was very hard to deal with.

I couldn't wash or feed myself or do any of the basic things in life. I was in very bad place where I was assessing the quality of my life and wondering whether it was worth continuing.

Then, a couple of years ago a neighbor told me about Westbere in Kent, where they take disabled people sailing. I wanted to do it immediately and the experience really has changed my life.

When I first announced that I was planning to sail across the Channel, I had no idea whether it was manageable or not, but I was frustrated that everyone around me was learning to sail and I was still a passenger.

It wasn't easy to convince people it could be done, but my family and friends were just pleased to see me excited about something again. I'd gone for a long time with nothing to talk about and life was pretty dull.

At the start of the year, I managed to get in touch with some people who could help me make it happen, and was loaned a boat by Pindar, one of my main sponsors. We adapted it to allow me to sail on my own, and I did some training in Cowes.

The sip-puff system, which allows me to control the boat, is actually built using the controls from my old wheelchair. It's basically just two plastic straws that are connected to motors. One moves the tiller, which controls your direction. The other controls the winches that adjust the sail, setting your speed. I sip or puff down each of them to sail the boat.

Matt Debicki, (of the Inventure Trust, who take severely disabled people sailing) adapted the boat for me, and did a great job.

The boat is a 26-foot Olympic Class 'Soling' that is usually sailed by thee big blokes hanging out on the rail. I needed the sails to be cut down, to make the boat manageable by just me.

Matt managed to take a few old wheelchair parts, a few yards of elastic and some pulleys and build them into a working sip-puff boat for me.

Even on the day itself Matt was down on the jetty, tinkering, -- it was that sort of operation.

The whole thing was a blast -- I loved every second, it was so exhilarating. Now I'm hoping to be able to sail round Britain. It's quite scary, but the more I talk about it the more I want to do it.

We'll need a bigger boat than the Soling, one that has somewhere to make a hot drink, and space to sleep. The boat will use sip and puff technology too, but it'll be a bit more high-tech; there will be more electronics and less elastic!

The technology has huge applications, not just for sailing but also for driving cars. I would love to be able to drive again. It makes you so much more independent. I just love being completely alone on the water. The whole point is having that complete freedom to control your own destiny.

-- For more information about Hilary Lister and the Channel Challenge visit link.

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