The HMCS Winnipeg is a frigate in the Canadian Navy, and it is also the ship that Ordinary Seaman (OS) Nicola Peffers served aboard for approximately two years, starting in 2009. Fresh out of marine electrical training, she boards ship in Hawaii, full of optimism, excitement and national pride.
Refuge in the Black Deck is an amazing memoir of time spent aboard ship, and Nicola Peffers takes us along as she goes from a proud, intelligent wide-eyed recruit to a lifeless, burned out, alcoholic, weed-smoking shell of her former self by the end of her deployment. She has PTSD written all over her, but is diagnosed as bipolar and doesn’t get the help she needs. What occurs in her deployment is a combination of sexist attitudes from her male shipmates and scorn from female ones. Getting summoned by a male superior as “Girl!” and her shocked response “you may address me as OS Peffers” is enough to get her labelled as an insubordinate troublemaker from Day One. From there, it just gets worse and worse for her and she finds herself estranged from all her shipmates in the engineering department. Sexual harassment ranges from groping to underwear theft to one creepy male counterpart confessing his rape fantasy to her. She finds herself employed by an organisation that is geared toward breaking one down rather than being encouraging and focused on training one to be a better sailor. There is no respite from what she faces day to day; no counselling nor anyone she can confidentially confide in.
There are precious few places on a ship to find some solitude from harassment, so Peffers takes refuge in the “Black Deck” a place where no one goes because it is dark, hot and smelly.
“What am I doing here? No one comes here unless they have to. I’m as deep inside her [the Winnipeg] now as I can go, and furthest away from the endless stares of men and the bitter glances of the women. I really wanted to be liked. More than anything….. I wanted a new family ever since I left mine as soon as I could, at the age of eighteen. I realize now that I’ve traded one abusive situation for another.”
The continuous reprimands (without an opportunity for any constructive dialogue) and punishment in the form of being assigned an inordinate amount of menial tasks takes their toll over time. One female counterpart (who is similarly tagged as a troublemaker) commits suicide. One gets the impression that an OS would have fared better in Nelson’s navy than in its antiquated Canadian counterpart. This book is the stark reality of the Canadian Navy as seen from the viewpoint of a female Ordinary Seaman. Refuge in the Black Deck is highly readable and while it certainly casts the Canadian Navy in a bad light (and is likely reflective of all branches of the Canadian Forces), it hopefully will be a vehicle for compassionate change as well as encouragement to other service personnel – male or female – in similar situations. Recommended. Long-listed for a 2017 “Very Best!” award.