GLEN LEVETT was asleep on the historic former Sydney ferry, MV Baragoola, when the roar of engines and rotor blades cut through the wind and rain. Five Black Hawk helicopters had swooped on the harbour in the early hours of the morning, one hovering metres above the steamer.
''A little bit before 1am, there was a God Almighty noise above the boat, [I] came out, and in the black there was a helicopter hovering right above us,'' said Mr Levett who was preparing the boat for an open day this weekend. ''Basically it just hovered there for about half an hour.''
It is understood the aircraft were taking part in a training exercise focused on another ship, the MV Cape Don, which is moored on the same dock at Balls Head, Waverton.
As dawn broke, Mr Levett - one of the founders of the Baragoola Preservation Association - realised down draught from the helicopter's rotors had wreaked havoc on the 88-year old ferry.
Wheelhouse panels, which were in poor condition, were blown away, and the railing was partially flattened. The down draught had also blown away protective sheeting on the vessel's deck and roof allowing a substantial amount of rainwater to penetrate the hull and cabins.
''There is water everywhere … I've got buckets and barrels all over the ship collecting all the dripping water, Mr Levett said.
Frustratingly the damage comes amid restorations worth thousands of dollars.
The association has made a formal complaint, but the president, Lance Lyon, did not want to comment until the army had a chance to respond, except to say it was ''not terribly sensible hovering above a 90-year-old boat''.
''The aircraft were supposed to be above Cape Don but instead hovered some 10 metres over Baragoola,'' the letter of complaint said. The association says it was not advised about the exercise and it intends to seek compensation. The ferry was built at Mort's Dock, in Balmain, in 1922. For six decades it ferried passengers between Manly and Circular Quay, making its last official voyage in 1983.
The Defence Department said ADF personnel in Sydney were conducting training this week involving ''helicopters and a small element of ground troops'' in Alexandria, North Sydney and Holsworthy. They did not provide information about this specific incident, except to say they will take statements of claim for damages.