Royal Navy Vessel Makes Epic S. Atlantic Voyage to Deliver Vaccine

tristan da cunha
HMS Forth arrives at Tristan da Cunha (Royal Navy)

Published Apr 29, 2021 7:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a long-distance dash to beat foul weather, the Royal Navy patrol vessel HMS Forth delivered vaccines to one of the most remote communities in the world - Tristan da Cunha, an isolated island some 1,500 nm to the west of South Africa. Forth was the first ship to call on the island in eight months and the first Royal Navy vessel to visit in six years.

HMS Forth delivered doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine for Tristan da Cunha's inhabitants after a 2,200 nm journey from the Falklands. She was on a timeline: she would need to transit out and back in advance of the South Atlantic's severe winter storms. Tristan da Cunha has no airport, and its sole harbor is not usable during the southern hemisphere's winter; this means that the 200-plus inhabitants of the island depend heavily on a narrow time window for maritime resupply. 

HMS Forth, which is part of the Royal Navy's permanent presence in the Falklands, covered the final mile in a long-distance race to get the vaccine to the island. The Royal Air Force delivered the cargo from an air base near London to RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands. Within an hour, the vaccine vials were transferred to secure storage aboard Forth and the ship got under way. 

The mission was a challenge for Forth: the 4,400 nm round trip was uncomfortably near the limit of the patrol ship’s maximum 5,500 nm range. There would be no chance to take on bunkers during the trip, so the crew had to make careful navigational decisions to minimize the fuel consumption impact of winds and currents. 

As for the vaccine, the AstraZeneca formulation keeps well at temperatures of up to 46 Fahrenheit, making it far easier to transport than the temperature-sensitive Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Forth's crew kept the shipment in cold bags in the sick bay, making regular temperature checks. 

The precious cargo was transferred into a refrigerator on shore within 60 minutes of Forth's arrival in the port of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. The timing and conditions were lucky: the harbor has minimal shelter from the elements, and strong winds keep it closed for all but 60 days per year.

“This was a vital lifeline to a community whose nearest support is seven days' sailing away," said Commander Chris Hollingworth, Forth’s commanding officer. "Most significantly, the UK and Royal Navy have reaffirmed their enduring commitment to our overseas territories by safeguarding Tristan da Cunha’s over 200 inhabitants against the very real threat of Covid-19."