WAVERLEY wellwishers have set sail on the most important voyage of the world famous paddle steamer's life — a £2.3 million fundraising drive to save her.

Throngs of supporters gathered to launch an appeal to pay for what has been described as the maritime equivalent of open heart surgery on the laid up 73-year-old icon.

Major problems with Waverley's boilers have forced her charity operators to cancel her entire summer cruising season, and the clock is ticking to have her ready for next year.

It is the first time in 207 years — since 1812 — that there has been no paddle steamer operating off Britain's coast.

Enthusiasts and politicians came together at Glasgow's Pacific Quay at the weekend to mark the official start of fundraising — and celebrate reaching their first £100,000 milestone.

Paul Semple, of Waverley Excursions, said: "We're heartened by the support so far — it's clear that huge numbers of people around Britain and around the world want to see Waverley sail again.

"But the financial challenge which faces Waverley remains very significant, and we urgently need more funds to let us place the orders and then carry out the work over the next nine months."

A detailed and costed plan is now in place to repair the ship.

Her iconic red, white and black twin funnels will be lifted off, and large sections of decking removed to allow the boilers and other equipment to be lifted out.

Replacements are expected to extend Waverley's operational life by a further 20 to 25 years.

The legendary ship has provided pleasure and unforgettable memories to generations of daytrippers on the Clyde and around Britain.

Mr Semple said: "There's a real determination not to allow Waverley to become a static relic.

"She was built to sail, and that's what so many people want to see again.

"Waverley's truly unique status as the world's last seagoing paddle steamer mustn't be taken for granted.

"Not for the first time, the future of the ship hangs in the balance.

"Once again, it's time to save the Waverley."

*Donations to the appeal can be made online at waverleyexcursions.co.uk or by calling 0141 243 2224 or Text STEAM £20 to 70085 to donate £20.

Waverley facts and figures

Built by A. & J. Inglis of Glasgow and launched in October 1946.

Entered service with the London and North Eastern Railway in June 1947, working LNER's Firth of Clyde steamer route from Craigendoran Pier, near Helensburgh, to Arrochar.

Powered by a three-crank diagonal triple-expansion marine steam engine built by Rankin & Blackmore in Greenock.

July 1977 - badly damaged when she struck rocks near Dunoon.

June 2009 - struck the breakwater at Dunoon with 700 passengers on board, 12 of whom suffered minor injuries.

Since being sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, she has carried more than five million passengers.