Breaking barriers and crossing oceans: From Mumbai to Muscat

Breaking barriers and crossing oceans: From Mumbai to Muscat
Two years after crossing the Indian Ocean, quadriplegic sailor Hilary Lister talks to Olly Hogben about the project's legacy, her experiences of Oman, and sharing the voyage with Nashwa al-Kindi.
7 min read
12 May, 2016
Quadriplegic sailor Hilary Lister was joined by Omani sailor Nashwa al-Kindi [Mark Lloyd]

Amid stories of helicopters and men with machine guns, mist that hovers between sea and cloud, and phosphorescence that lights up the ocean at night, you occasionally remember that your storyteller can only move her head, eyes, and mouth.

When she arrived in Muscat in March 2014, 43-year-old Hilary Lister had completed an 850-mile journey that began in Mumbai, on a boat that she controlled solely by blowing into three straws. She became the first quadriplegic to complete a trans-oceanic crossing, but unlike all of Hilary's previous projects this was not a solo sail.

On her record-breaking voyage, the British sailor was accompanied by Oman's Nashwa al-Kindi, who became the first Arab woman to accomplish the same feat.

Having crossed the English Channel solo in 2005, and completed a round-Britain sail in 2009, Hilary had been gunning for a major ocean crossing for some time. A meeting with Oman-based Major General Albert Whitley in 2012 got the whole project moving; he offered the use of his 28-foot Dragonfly and the chance to relive one of the world's oldest trading routes - Mumbai to Muscat. Crucially, it also gave her the chance to team up with Nashwa, with whom Hilary had wanted to work for some time.

"We got on like a house on fire, and we'd agreed that we'd do something together," says Hilary of the 31-year-old Omani. A lead instructor at Oman Sail, al-Kindi was the perfect partner for the hugely experienced Lister.

Nashwa al-Kindi (left) and Hilary Lister
led the four-strong crew [Mark Lloyd]

The sail began amid inauspicious circumstances, with departure from Mumbai not easy. "We burned up all our petrol in the first 36 hours," Hilary explained, necessitating an unexpected refuelling stop in Porbandar, birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. "Nashwa fortunately speaks Hindi and Urdu," she continued, but securing the fuel was the least of their concerns. 

When port security arrived to inspect their papers, it transpired that the previous incumbent of the boat had left them in Oman by mistake. Cue a helicopter circling overhead and threats of arrest by men with machine guns. "Which wasn't great," Hilary remarks in that understated, matter-of-fact way she handles life's many setbacks. In fact, she seems to find it all hilarious.

There have certainly been sufficient setbacks in Hilary's life to dull her sense of humour, too. Starting with occasional discomfort in her legs at the age of 11, then stronger pain when tackling stairs at 13, by 15 Hilary remembers, "it hurt to just put one foot in front of the other".

She recalls being told, by a doctor: "I've got some good news for you and some bad news for you." She opted for the bad first in the hope that the good news would cheer her up. 

Hilary was told that she would be in a wheelchair with her legs in plaster for two years, but would be able to walk normally after this. "Slight misdiagnosis," she wryly remarks, but without a trace of bitterness. Eventually Hilary was correctly diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy - progressive and incurable - and she would never walk again. 

It derailed, then eventually ended, her highly promising postgraduate research in biochemistry at the University of Oxford when she also lost the feeling in her fingers and hands. 

"I dropped £12,000 worth of sample, and four months' work, on the floor… we saved the sample, thank God," says Hilary. But she knew her life as a scientist had come to an end. At 29 she could no longer use her hands and arms, and soon after became entirely quadriplegic. However, her attitude remained simple and resolute: "You just learn to deal with it and move on, really."

For a biochemist like Hilary, the Indian Ocean was a dream come true. Out on the open sea, she and Nashwa worked as a pair to sail the boat and developed a great friendship. "It was good to truly sail as a team - it was lovely," says Hilary.

The sense of teamwork and camaraderie on the voyage was clearly at the heart of the experience for Lister, who is so used to sailing solo, though it didn't prevent opportunities for fun and games. Flying fish are everywhere in this part of the Indian Ocean, and when one of them struck boat manager Niall Myant (part of the four-strong crew with Hilary's carer, Lisa) on the back of the head, Hilary thought it hysterical. 

"Until the following night, when I got hit smack-bang in the face with one, which he revelled in," she remarks with an air of inevitability. 

On the third day of the voyage, as heavy mist began to clear, the ocean lit up in the most spectacular sight of Hilary's sailing career. "We sailed in to this patch of phosphorescent algae. It looked as if someone had lit the boat up with neon light - it was just incredible, so beautiful."

While Hilary was enjoying the scientific beauty of what was in front of her, Nashwa was similarly relishing the challenge of controlling the boat in more difficult conditions than she had ever been used to. For a seasoned solo sailor like Lister, "it was nice to have somebody to share experiences with - to laugh with."

The 28-foot Dragonfly successfully completed the
850-mile Mumbai-Oman voyage [Mark Lloyd]

Nashwa and Hilary are still in contact regularly, and both are looking to future projects. Hilary speaks with great fondness of their partnership, saying, "It's just something that is strengthened by being on a boat."

Inspired by this project, al-Kindi has her sights set on a round-the-world solo sail and was recently awarded the ISAF President Development Award for outstanding achievement in the development of sailing; despite only learning to sail in 2010. From her home in Kent, Lister is busy planning a Transatlantic crossing, with stops along the way to introduce people to the new technologies used in disability sailing. 

She needs to raise £500,000 for the voyage, but is characteristically undaunted by the challenge.

Every project Lister undertakes is clearly driven by a profound sense of legacy and impact. "Some people get the very mistaken view that I just like to break records," she says.

Talking to her it is clearly important to her that the Mumbai-Muscat sail leaves a mark in its own region; Oman is clearly a country that the English sailor cares about. "We all loved it - I could exist in that society," Hilary enthuses. 

She and Nashwa were also evidently motivated by how much support the project received, and by Omani government backing for women to excel in sport. When I ask her what she hopes has changed, two years on, her goal is clear; "I hope that it's inspired some of the disabled kids that I met – particularly some of the blind children that sailed at Oman Sail - to just go for their dreams."

Hilary's passion for introducing others to sailing is a very personal one, driven by how it changed her own life. Having been "housebound, agoraphobic, and institutionalised" for virtually three years, she was introduced to the sport by a friend through an organisation called Westbere Sailing Opportunities. 

"These people seemed to not see the wheelchair at all, or the disability," she remembers. It was a pivotal moment in Hilary's life, and she found that sailing gave her a purpose missing since the onset of her illness. "I hate life without sailing," she says starkly, "it's the only place where the pain can completely disappear."

Though she obviously looks back on the voyage from Mumbai to Muscat with great fondness, it is clear that Hilary Lister is someone who focuses on what is ahead. Perhaps, in the future, Hilary and Nashwa's paths will cross again, as an inspirational Omani sailing instructor's round-the-world sail takes her through the Atlantic Ocean.

Certainly, Hilary is clear about how she wants the years ahead to unfold. "No more treatments, thank you very much," she says. "You can help keep me comfortable, but I don't want any more intervention. I just want to sail."


Olly Hogben is a sports commentator, presenter and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @bennettcomms