Meet Nikki Strout, Owner of Rugged Seas

Meet Nikki Strout, Owner of Rugged Seas

When Nikki and Taylor Strout started Rugged Seas—a Maine company that makes tote bags, wallets, backpacks, and other items out of recycled fishermen’s “bibs” (hauling pants)—they thought it would be a small sideline, a way to help raise money for fisherman’s causes. 

Now they work hard to keep up with demand and sell all over the world. 

“Our brand is as tough as the people who fish our oceans and live in our coastal communities,” says the company’s website. “Rugged Seas isn’t just for the fishermen who work year-round and through all kinds of weather to bring seafood to the table—it’s for all of us who love and respect the ocean and what it does for us.” 

Many steps go into making a Rugged Seas product, such as collecting the old, used bibs that get donated to the company’s drop sites or mailed in, taking them to a local dry cleaner, and delivering them to a family-owned manufacturer in Lewiston, where a range of sturdy designs get implemented.   

For Nikki, the success of Rugged Seas has meant she’s taken on more and different responsibilities than she ever expected.  With Taylor often gone on long fishing trips, she puts the “busy” in “business.” Plus, the couple has three young sons, aged seven, five, and two. And the oldest and youngest have a rare genetic condition that causes blindness in children.   

Nikki Strout is an amazing Maine woman—for all she does and for the positive, resilient way she approaches challenges. I was so glad for the chance to talk with her and to learn more about Rugged Seas and her great family.  

 

 

Mary:  

Where are you and your husband originally from, and how did you meet? 

Nikki:  

My husband Taylor and I grew up together in Cape Elizabeth. We were always friends. He’s a year younger than me, and we were friends in high school.  We went away to college—he went to school in Colorado, and I went to school at Marshall University in West Virginia—and we stayed friends through college. Then after college was when we actually started dating. We ended up getting married, and we moved away to Vermont for my first job as a nurse practitioner.  We basically moved away for a while and took jobs elsewhere, but we finally made it back, and we live in Cape Elizabeth now. 

Mary:  

Your husband has a fishing background?   

Nikki:  

Yes. He grew up lobstering here in Maine with his dad. His dad’s a commercial fisherman out of Portland. And so Taylor grew up doing that job with him, and then he had his own boat in the summers. He would always fish through the summer. When we started dating, my uncle, who is the captain of a boat in Dutch Harbor in Alaska, called Taylor and said, “Can you come up here and help me? I’ve lost one of my crew members.” Taylor said to him, “Well, let me talk to Nikki about it. When do you need me?” And my uncle said, “I already booked you a flight for tomorrow.” 

So we kind of didn’t have a choice. 

Taylor left, started fishing up there, and he loved it. He put himself back through school to get his Merchant Mariner’s credentials, but he continued to work up in Alaska. He took a break from fishing for a while and was working on tugboats and out of the Gulf of Mexico, but he really missed fishing. So he went back to it, and he’s been doing that consistently since 2012. He is still fishing a lot in Alaska.  

I don’t think he’ll ever stop fishing. It runs in his blood at this point. His last season he left in January, and he didn’t come home until May. They got stuck up there with COVID. They all were stuck on their boats in quarantine and couldn’t fish for a month and a half. He was gone for almost five months this last trip.  I’m used to it. I don’t think we’ve really known anything different. We got married on June 9th in 2012, and he left June 10th to go fishing, and he was gone for four months. It’s just our way of life. 

Mary:  

Tell me about the company, Rugged Seas, and how it got started. 

Nikki: 

The fishing industry and the community here were facing a lot of struggles with the working waterfront, a lot of development issues. Taylor and I really wanted to find a way to get more involved, show our support, and raise money for the fishermen. 

Our whole idea was to take the classic fishing bibs that you see guys wearing, the waterproof overalls, and see if we could recycle them into other products. Because otherwise, usually, they’re just thrown away. So we brought some home. We were washing them in our washing machine, and I was doubtful, saying, “Taylor, I don’t know how we’re going to do this.” But we found a manufacturer who was willing to work with us, and we started making tote bags and clutches. 

We thought this is a great way to tell the fishermen’s story. All these bags look so different because all of their bibs are worn differently, and the lobstermen use them in different ways, so the materials have different tears and cuts. 

No two bags look the same. We started selling our products just about a year ago, and it blew up. I couldn’t keep products in inventory. Every time I would load an item on our website, it would sell out within a few hours. It was just crazy. People really like the tote bags because they tell a story, about hard work being done. We’ve had people purchase from Australia, Canada, all over the world. And we’ve had people send us bibs and their gear from all over the world.  

Now we’re up to, I think, 35 different wholesale accounts, and it’s very busy on our website. As I mentioned, we really wanted to be able to give back to the fishing community, so we give a portion of our proceeds to the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. 

Mary:  

Do you know if Rugged Seas products are purchased mostly by men or by women?  

Nikki:  

It’s interesting. I thought originally that mostly women would be buying our tote bags, but I’ve had a lot of men purchase them, men who like to sail or who work on the water. Because the bottoms are made out of the bib materials, they’re water resistant on the bottom. So, they’re great for the beach or on a boat. Our backpacks, I think it’s 50/50, men and women, who purchase them. And all of our apparel, I think it’s pretty even 50/50, which is really neat to see. 

Mary: 

Are you able to handle the sudden growth in the business? 

Nikki: 

I do have times where I think to myself, “I can’t do this anymore. This is way too much work. I’m so exhausted.” And two of our three sons are not well.  But when Taylor is home, it’s great. We have his undivided attention, and he has ours. And my mom and our extended family live nearly.  There’s no way that we could live this life if our family weren’t around to help us. It wouldn’t be possible. 

Mary:  

Two of your sons are not well?  

Nikki: 

Yes. Two of our boys have a very rare genetic condition. It’s called autosomal recessive bestrophinopathy, and it’s a disease that causes you to go blind in childhood. We don’t have anyone in our families who is blind. We don’t have any family history of this. I think the statistics are one in a million, or something like that, with this disease.  

Mary:  

Did you know right away that the two boys had it? 

Nikki:  

No, we didn’t know that they had this condition. When our youngest was seven months old, I noticed that one of his eyes kept turning in, and I thought maybe his muscles were weak. I gave it a couple days, and it just was getting worse. So, I brought him to the doctor, and they sent us right to a specialist who said, “This is what I think it is, but we need to do further special testing and genetic testing.” We found out then that he had this condition. At that time, the doctors said, “Since it is a genetic condition, we really need to see your other kids, too, to rule out if they have it or not.” 

And come to find out, our oldest son, who was in kindergarten at the time, has it, too. He was having a hard time in school. His case is much worse than the baby’s. He’s progressed much further along than the baby. Our middle son doesn’t have the condition. He’s the five-year-old. So, the seven-year-old and the two-year-old have it. 

Mary:  

Will they lose their sight? 

Nikki:  

They have already started losing their vision, but they still have a lot of functional vision. If you were to see them, you would not know that they were struggling at all. But yes, their vision continues to decline. It could be that suddenly they wake up, and they say, “Something’s wrong. Things don’t look right.” It’s a lot like macular degeneration, but in kids. 

Mary:  

How are you dealing with all this? 

Nikki:  

It was really scary, and Taylor was shipped out when we found out. It was hard to deal with this news on my own. There was a week when we had seen a specialist up here, and we had to wait to see a specialist in Boston, and I would just cry and cry—I was terrified.  But in everything that we’ve learned, we’re getting them the best care that we can. We have a great team behind them. We know that we are going to raise them to be as independent as they possibly can be—as happy boys. The blindness community is very welcoming. We’ve made a lot of friends. I’ve met a lot of moms who have kids who have similar conditions, and it’s been really helpful to be able to talk with them and get through it that way. We’ve learned a lot about blindness and about being visually impaired. There are so many different degrees of what is blind. 

But it’s scary. I threw myself into doing as much research as I could and learning as much as I could and finding out about, “Where can we go?” I would think, “There have to be answers. There has to be some sort of treatment. There has to be some sort of cure.” And there’s not, which I think is the hardest part to swallow.  

Still, every night I’m up reading articles, and I’m trying to find a different doctor to take them to and figure out how we can manage this, what the next steps are going to be, and what I should be watching for with our oldest, making sure that he’s still okay with his schoolwork and things like that.  

Mary:  

What has been the reaction of the boys? 

Nikki:  

Our seven-year-old son sees a handful of specialists. And one of the doctors he sees in Boston is what’s called a low vision specialist. In conversations with her, she has told me that I’ll know when the right time is to have an in-depth conversation with him about, “Okay, this is what’s happening. This is what’s going to happen. And this is how we’re going to deal with it.” And she feels that for right now, just let him be a kid and not put that in his head, not give him that stress. 

He knows that his eyes are different. We’ve explained that fact in simple terms. He wears glasses. And he’s extremely sensitive, does not like being different, does not like having to wear his glasses. He hates the fact that he has this condition. Emotionally, he’s having a really hard time already, I think, with isolation and depression. So, we’re trying to help Cooper with those issues now, before they become too deep for him. He sees a therapist. He sees his guidance counselor at school. But he does not like the fact that he’s different, that’s for sure. 

Mary:  

Oh, Nikki, I can’t imagine. From one mother to another, you’re like a superstar here. 

Nikki:  

I wish. I wish. That’s very kind. 

I think I have come to accept it better. There are some gene therapy trials that in progress right now, not to restore any vision that’s been lost. It’s to prevent any further loss of vision. But these trials are so far down the line that I can’t allow myself to have that hope. Because I just feel like if you’re just always holding onto hope, you’re not dealing with your reality. I don’t know. It’s a hard balance, between not wanting to lose hope but having to deal with reality.  

Mary:  

Yes. And meanwhile, you a running a successful business. How did you get so good at balancing different large pressures and priorities?  

Nikki:  

I have two sisters, and we were raised by my mom. She always instilled in us you always have to be able to take care of yourself and your family. You can’t rely on anyone else. And so that’s been part of me since I was very little. Looking back on everything that’s gone on in the last year and a half or so, I’ve surprised myself. It’s amazing what we can do when we put our mind to something. And I want to show my kids what hard work means and what it means to find reward in hard work. They’re proud of Rugged Seas, and some of their friends wear Rugged Seas stuff, and they think it’s really cool. 

Mary:  

I hope you are keeping notes on your experiences. I think you might want to consider writing a book someday, Nikki.  You have nothing else to do, right? 

Nikki:  

We have days where we look at each other and we just say, “Okay, we have to remember this day. Just remember this day 10 years from now. Who knows where we’ll be, but remember this day and the meeting that we just got out of and how exciting that was,” or, “Remember being out lobstering.”  

My oldest son is out lobstering with my father-in-law today. We keep reminding ourselves, “We have to remember these moments,” you know what I mean? And live in this moment right now because who knows where things will be even a month from now. t

For more information about Rugged Seas, please visit their website, at ruggedseas.com. Photos courtesy of Mint & Thistle Photography.

 

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