I am an ocean rower. I row traditional-style wooden boats in and around Belfast Bay, which is part of Penobscot Bay in the Midcoast region of Maine.
I first started rowing in 2012. I discovered Come Boating, a community rowing and sailing program in Belfast, Maine, where I live. The organization’s mission is to get folks out on the water, primarily in pilot gigs, which are traditional Cornish-style wooden and fiberglass boats. These vessels, dating back to the 18th century, were used to transport goods back and forth between tall ships in the Cornwall region of the UK. The boats are 32-feet long, weigh over 800 pounds, seat six rowers, and are piloted by a coxswain. There’s also room for a passenger!
Rowing in the pilot gigs felt awkward but also empowering. A former athlete, I was using muscles at first that I didn’t even know I had. Rowing within a group provided a wonderful sense of community and connection. This companionable aspect was especially meaningful to me as a single parent. And being out on the water . . . the peace, communion with the natural world, and sense of adventure were very gratifying.
For the next few years, rowing became an important source of fitness and wellness for me. I took a break for a few years when I developed an injury and then came back to the oars in 2018. I was now 49. In the run-up to 50, being strong was an imperative. It was during this year that I began racing in the gigs, most often on women’s teams. Rowing in tandem with five other impressive, bad-ass women, all who were older than me, was thrilling.
Come Boating offered a winter rowing program to members, and so for the next two years I rowed through the colder months. The program came to a screeching halt on March 15, 2020, when, on this chilly Sunday, we went out for what would be our last community row. The Coronavirus pandemic had hit Maine and the nation, and stay-at-home orders were about to go into place. My teenage son would soon be attending school remotely, and I would be working from home.
After a few weeks of not rowing, I started to go out of my mind. Rowing had become a crucial outlet in my life, for both physical and mental health, as well as social connections. I did some research, and in May, with part of my stimulus check, I bought my own boat. It is a traditional-style Swampscott wooden dory, 19’5” long and weighing around 200 pounds. Drawing on my Franco heritage and my fascination with magic and transformation, I named her Sorciere, which means “witch,” in French. And I’ve been rowing her ever since. Drawing from experience and skills gained in the pilot gigs, I row year-round, through all four seasons and in all kinds of weather, wind, and waves.
I rowed mainly solo from the time I launched my boat on Mother’s Day in May 2020, through the fall. Those months gave me an opportunity to get to know Sorciere and to build new skills and confidence. I had only ever rowed within a group, so going out alone was pushing my edges. I would row further out into the bay, expanding both the distances I traveled and my comfort zone. That feeling of being out in the open water, just me and my boat, was big and engendered a healthy dose of humility . . . and vulnerability. I felt the vastness of this incredible place and my smallness in it. Yet, in another sense, I wasn’t at all alone. In my rows, I saw seals, jumping fish, birds of prey, colonial-nesting seabirds, and the occasional porpoise. These interactions were both delightful and awe-inspiring and strengthened a growing sense of stewardship to help protect these vital coastal waterways and the creatures that live here.
By early summer, I had returned to longer distance rows, something I had done with Come Boating. In early July, I rowed ten miles round-trip from Belfast to Searsport. And for my birthday in August, my son and I rowed to Warren Island, a Maine State Park (a little Shangri-La off of Isleboro), eleven miles from Belfast. This trip proved quite the adventure, not just because of the difficult wind and waves we faced, but also for me, contending with an irate teenager who wanted to be anywhere else but in a rowboat in the middle of a bay with his mother. At his protestations, we did get a little help on the way back. Friends of ours, who met us at Warren Island, offered to tow us back the next day with their motorboat. I compromised and agreed to a tow half-way back. They dropped us off with our boat at Bayside, and my son, like a horse to the stables, rowed back without complaint, a smile spread across his face as big and bright as the sun.
In the fall, I started rowing with friends. We rowed throughout the fall, marveling at the changing seasons from the vantage point of the boat, marking the passage of time (and various holidays) with each stroke of our oars. On Halloween, I organized a “Witches Row,” where several rowers and paddlers donned witchy garb and rowed across the harbor to a friend’s beach where we gathered around a fire and shared spirits and spells. Later, we rowed back to the docks under the light of the full October moon. We rowed on the Solstice and rang in the New Year on my boat. In these colder months, we encountered ice, fierce northern winds, challenging chop and swells, and the occasional snowstorm. Even in such turbulent conditions, winter offered its own quiet beauty. We had the harbor and the bay (almost) to ourselves. Our only companions were different species of waterfowl that return to Maine in the winter and the seals and river otters, who left evidence of their romps with their paw prints and slides in the snow on my dock.
My boat continued to be a source of inspiration and play. On Valentine’s Day I outfitted myself in a red and black buffalo checked cloak. On St. Patrick’s Day, I bedecked myself in green layers and baubles. My friends and I kept rowing, right into spring, which included a small boat race, “Return of the Cormorants,” celebrating these awkward migratory birds. On Mother’s Day, we celebrated the one year-anniversary of bringing my boat home to Belfast.
With spring came some unexpected changes. I lost my job. I was once again faced with the question, at age 51, of what I wanted to be when I grew up. A sentiment I often shared with my friends was “I wish I could be paid to row.” Out of this thought, a new vision and path began to emerge—offering private rowing lessons, small group charters, and wellness outings for women in my boat. But how to do this? Despite being an experienced rower with my own boat, it wasn’t quite as simple as it would seem. I vetted Sorciere with the Coast Guard, who cleared me from any requirements with them, but then I quickly discovered that in Maine, in order to take people out on the water for profit, you need to be a Licensed Guide. A Sea Kayak Guide, in fact! It took me a while to wrap my head around this requirement. Rowing and kayaking couldn’t be more different. For starters, with rowing you are moving backwards. But I ended up pursuing this path with the doggedness I have employed with anything that’s really mattered to me in my life.
In late June I took my Sea Kayak Guide exam through the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife—and I passed.
This summer of 2021, I’ll be launching my new business, DoryWoman Rowing. On one hand, this name seems straightforward: I’m a woman, and I row my dory. On the other hand, this name means a whole lot more. When I searched for “dory woman” on the internet, I got almost no entries. Though surely women, dories, and other small wooden boats have been inextricably linked throughout the ages, in the present day these linkages seem to be uncommon. Women and rowing, in general, aren’t overly linked, despite important gains made through Title IX legislation. Women, traditional boats, and rowing are hardly synonymous, in other words. I’m hoping to help change that.
In June, Come Boating reopened and launched its 2021 season. Like many of my friends, I’ve found my way back to rowing in the pilot gigs. I am reminded there really is nothing like rowing with a group of strong rowers, using our bodies to pull our oars hard and propel a heavy boat through the water. At the same time, there is also nothing like the intimacy and communion that being in a small boat floating in a large body of water provides. It’s nice to have options.
With most COVID-related restrictions lifted in Maine, I encourage Maine Women readers to get out on the water this summer, and why not in a wooden rowboat?
To learn more about Nicolle go to www.dorywomanrowing.com or follow Nicolle @dorywomanrowing