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Quadriplegic sailor finally rounds Britain's coastline

More than 14 months after setting out on a voyage that many believed would kill her, the quadriplegic sailor Hilary Lister last night completed her circumnavigation of Britain.

Exhausted but exhilarated, the 37-year-old former scientist, who can only move her neck, eyes and mouth, returned to a hero's welcome in Dover harbour in glorious sunshine, enjoying rare near-perfect conditions.

During her quest she has battled worsening health brought on by her degenerative condition, which has regularly caused her to stop breathing and twice resulted in her being admitted to hospital amid fears that she might succumb to the rigours of the challenge.

But yesterday it was all smiles and relief as she was reunited with her husband and family after months apart.

Mrs Lister had to take repeated rest breaks during the gruelling series of 40 sails, completed during the day and overnight. The elements did their best to confound her ambition of becoming the first woman with such a profound level of disability to negotiate her way round the unpredictable waters off the British and Irish coasts.

Forced to abandon her attempt last year because of bad weather, a second wet summer saw 18ft-high waves and torrential rain storms repeatedly batter her vessel, which she controls by blowing and sucking through a straw.

Beginning from the point in Cornwall where she left off in August 2008, she successfully rounded Land's End before sailing across the Irish Sea. It was off Carlingford Loch that the most dramatic moment of her voyage occurred when she found herself in the middle of a pod of broaching whales. She said: "There were two of them jumping – they were showing off like dolphins. One of them went under the boat I thought, 'Oh dear, I'm in the middle of a pod of whales – this might not be the best place to be.'"

The low point came off the west coast of Scotland shortly before she made her way through the Caledonian Canal to begin her descent southward. A broken crankshaft on her support vessel meant she could not go on unless £9,000 was found.

"That was a very hard decision to spend the money and continue the project because it wiped out what would have been my savings for my pension. That wiped me out. But that's life, it's only money and you can't take it with you."

She thanked her support crew and the many supporters and well-wishers who followed her progress around the coast of Britain. "I could not have done it without them," she said. "I am just so delighted to be back in my home port of Dover. In some ways it is a good thing to be back but I will miss sailing so I must begin planning my next project. I feel completely kippered."

The high-flying academic was cut down with the rare condition, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, when she was 11 years old. The condition has eroded all but her most basic movements. When she is not sailing, she must be dressed and fed by carers and spends each day battling the tedium of sitting on the specially adapted sofa at her home in Kent, watching daytime television until she can be taken back to bed. As well as the boredom, she suffers severe bone pain.

But sailing at a local lake helped transform her life and after conquering the Channel, she set her sights on sailing around the British Isles. This summer, she resumed her attempts aboard Arty, her 20ft carbon fibre keelboat. The steering system uses three straws connected to sensitive pressure switches. A "sip" on one straw causes the boat to go to starboard, while a "puff" takes the boat to port. The second straw controls the winch motor for the sails and the third allows her to control her Raymarine autopilot and trim her sails.

There were other challenges too. She had to contend with the variable disabled facilities across Britain: "Some places have been very accessible, others not at all. At one campsite we asked about disabled facilities and they asked 'What do you mean?' "

The 15-mile final leg from Ramsgate was brought forward after high winds again threatened to disrupt her quest.

Ms Lister has raised more than £30,000 for her charity, Hilary's Dream Trust, which aims to help disabled adults to sail. Converting a boat costs £1,500. Mrs Lister hopes to help dozens of wheelchair-users get afloat from next year.

'I just want to keep on sailing'

I am sad that this journey has come to an end – I don't want to get out of the boat, I just want to keep on sailing. But there is also huge excitement because I am going home to see my family who I haven't seen for four months, including my new nephew.

This has been all about taking the "dis" out of disability. It is also about saying that adults with disabilities need the opportunity to live their dreams as much as children do. But at the moment all the money is going to children and that is why we formed Hilary's Dream Trust to help adults to fulfil their sailing ambitions. It is always humbling when other people see what we have done and are inspired.

I have learnt a lot as a sailor and hope I am better than I was back in May. My health is OK. It's not as good as it was a year ago, but that is what life is for me.

I have learnt from harsh experience not to give a direct answer to the question of "What next?" Someone stuck a microphone in my face after the Channel and asked me that, and I said "Sail around Britain" – and now here I am. You shouldn't rule anything out. I do have plans, so watch this space. I have been lucky enough in my 37 years to do more than many people get the chance to do in a lifetime and I have loved every bit.