updated 8/24/2006 4:56:55 PM ET 2006-08-24T20:56:55

Tropical Storm Debby was expected to slowly strengthen in the open Atlantic, while another system north of Venezuela verged on becoming a named storm, forecasters said Thursday.

Debby was expected to remain far from land and threatened only ships crossing the Atlantic, said Jamie Rhome, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Debby had top sustained winds near 50 mph, well below the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane. It was centered about 955 miles west-northwest of the Cape Verde islands, which are about 350 miles off the African coast.

The storm was moving west-northwest near 20 mph and was expected to continue on that path for the next day, the National Hurricane Center said.

Debby is the fourth named storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season.

A hurricane hunter aircraft in the Caribbean found the tropical depression with sustained winds that appeared to be just below tropical storm strength of 39 mph, said James Franklin, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. It would be called Ernesto.

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