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American salts cast off for Normandy

UNDER the charge of a 78-year- old skipper and a crew of pensioners, the world's last seaworthy Liberty Ship chugged out of San Francisco Bay, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and off into a blanket of fog. A small crowd of well-wishers waved from the quayside.

Manned by Second World War veterans, the Jeremiah O'Brien is on an epic voyage to Portsmouth and France to join in the 50th anniversary of D- Day. The 441ft vessel was steered out of San Francisco on Monday by a 65-year-old helmsman, under the escort of a vintage DC-3 passenger plane.

Built during the war in just 56 days, it was one of thousands of hastily assembled cargo ships that carried the troops, supplies and tanks across the Channel during the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944.

Its elderly master, Captain George Jahn, concedes that his craft has not made an ocean voyage since 1946, the year President Bill Clinton was born.

She was laid up for 34 years. But in 1979 the National Liberty Ship Memorial took over the vessel, and she was steamed to San Francisco for a refit. This restoration, which required 400,000 hours of volunteer work, returned her to near pristine condition.

The trip was twice delayed by the US Coast Guard, which wanted more sea trials. 'Everyone's asking if I have any doubts,' said the captain, before departing. 'But there's nothing wrong with this ship. She'll make it. There is no reason she can't'

He applies the same argument to his men - average age 70 - some of whom last sailed when there was still a threat of being sunk by a German U- boat. Jahn admits that his crew are old, but says they are 'all good and anxious to go'. The men, who were obliged to take physical examinations before departure, are accompanied by a doctor and a priest, and a number of young hands who can step in if they tire. They are expected to reach Panama in a fortnight, then Portsmouth 40 days later. After the celebrations, they will sail back again, completing a round trip of 20,000 miles. The voyage may prove to be arduous during the summer months, because the ship has no air conditioning. But the crew are undaunted - they have been preparing the ship for the past two years, at a cost of some dollars 2.5m ( pounds 1.7m).

Among those on board is Ralph Ahlgren, 72, a retired printer who has not been to sea for 40 years. He is an oiler in the ship's boiler room. 'This,' he said, 'is the last big adventure in a guy's life.'

(Photograph omitted)