Nicolle Littrell: The Dorywoman
by Michele Christle
It was June 21, the morning of the solstice, and Nicolle Littrell had just come back from taking a few passengers out on a Wild Woman solstice row—one of her signature specialty rows. She led me down to the dock to Sorciere, her 19.5-foot Swampscott dory, and effortlessly navigated us through the maze of boats and buoys in the Belfast harbor, sharing her story.
Nicolle’s story is that of a 53-year-old single mother with a varied career buying a rowboat, losing her job, and then extraordinarily turning that rowboat—her passion—into her livelihood. Not only does this livelihood provide financial security for Nicolle, but it also provides wellness, an increased appreciation and sense of stewardship for the Belfast Bay and all life contained within its dynamic tidal ecosystem to anyone who steps foot in her boat.
The morning we met up it was almost a year to the day Nicolle had passed her Maine Guide exam. Some people become Maine Guides early in their lives, their certification becoming a core part of their identity. While Nicolle had long been intrigued by the idea of guiding, inspired by New York guide Anne LeBastille and infamous Maine guide Fly Rod Crosby, she hadn’t truly considered embarking on the training until she was told she’d have to become certified to accept remuneration for taking people out on her boat. “I was happy to comply,” Nicolle attested.
Initially, Nicolle reached out to the Coast Guard with her vision of offering rowing lessons and tours in her traditional wooden boat on the ocean, then Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (MDIFW). “I don’t think they quite knew what to do with me at first,” she said. Eventually, MDIFW recommended she become a Maine Sea Kayak Guide—the closest category within the Maine Guide structure, which would allow her to take people out below the head of tide and up to three miles out to sea.
Passing the exam required rigorous, focused research, training, and studying. The test was challenging—100 multiple-choice questions plus the oral exam. The topics covered a variety of areas: plotting a course, navigation, catastrophic scenarios and events, identifying flora and fauna, aides to navigation, knot-tying, group dynamics, and paddle talk.
Nicolle is proud of her training and certification—it demonstrates to her passengers that she’s skilled, knowledgeable, and capable of keeping them safe. Before I even got into the boat, she’d already explained to me what she’d do if I were to go overboard. The tenor of her calm, steady voice running through the safety protocol immediately put me at ease.
That same voice was responsible for part of Nicolle’s earlier career as an actor. After receiving a degree in Theater and English Literature from SUNY Buffalo, she pursued a career as a working actor in New York City for seven years doing episodic television, commercials, and voiceovers. In addition, she took several classes in filmmaking at New York University. Nicolle came to Maine in 1999 on a lark and ended up teaching at Maine Media Workshops and producing video content for a national midwifery organization. She then got an interdisciplinary master’s degree with a focus on Gender Studies, New Media, and Communication at the University of Maine and went on to teach in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program there. That was followed by a time working as a domestic violence advocate—the last job she had before Dory Woman Rowing came to fruition.
When Nicolle lost her job, she was 51. She knew she loved rowing. She loved her boat. She has an entrepreneurial spirit. “What am I waiting for?” she asked herself.
Nicolle is now the sole proprietor of DoryWoman Rowing, offering rowing lessons, guided tours, workout rows, and specialty rows such as Full Moon Rows and seasonal rows such as Witches Rows and the Solstice Row she’d just returned from, for individuals, pairs, and trios. Her business runs year-round—even during the height of winter she has a steady stream of people rowing with her, mostly locals. During high season, she could be doing three to four rows a day, six days a week, with a mix of clients from the area and from away.
While she’s been successful so far, this is her first full season. “It’s still an experiment,” Nicolle playfully cautioned, her eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses.
For Nicolle’s business to succeed, she’s dependent on four things: a steady client base, her body, the weather, and Sorciere herself. Having lived in the Belfast area for 22 years, with a background in marketing, the clients keep coming (though Nicolle says she works as hard at marketing as she does at rowing). To take care of her body, Nicolle makes sure she makes plenty of time to rest, play, and eat, taking at least one day off a week. When something in her body feels out of whack like when she tweaked her back a few weeks ago doing repairs on Sorciere, she took a day off to get a massage. The weather, however, is out of her control.
Climate-driven changes such as increased storm surges and southeasterly winds are already apparent in Penobscot Bay. The presence of more persistent and shifting winds can generate choppier conditions. And operating a small boat in a big body of water means Nicolle has to make careful decisions. She’s already unable to get out on the water as much as she’d like. Nevertheless, Nicolle sees it as her responsibility to try to cultivate a sense of stewardship in people who come out in the boat with her. It’s truly low-impact tourism at its finest—no motor, no waste, no chemicals in the water.
In a previous conversation, Nicolle shared with me that the repetitive motion of rowing is such an embodied, meditative experience that when she gets out on the water all of her worries are neutralized. So I waited for a pause—Nicolle’s elegant wooden oars resting in the oarlocks—to ask Nicolle to share what she worries about. Her worries are fairly standard for a small business owner, parent, and citizen. She worries something will happen to her boat. She wants what’s best for her son and her mother. She thinks a lot about the state of politics locally, domestically, and globally and is very concerned about the rollback of Roe vs. Wade and the loss of reproductive rights.
And…the pogies were jumping—bright splashes of silver out of the corner of our eyes. Osprey, cormorants, and heron crisscrossed in the sky above us. Seals were popping out of the water to catch a breath, eyeing us from a distance as Nicolle called out to them like old friends. The water to our starboard started to undulate—a giant school of pogies was attempting to flee a hungry seal, moving like an underwater murmuration across the bay until they were out of sight. Nicolle’s oars slid back into the water as we began our human-powered journey back to the dock.
“I’m grateful,” Nicolle said, nodding. “I have a good setup. I’m grateful to live in this place. I’m grateful for the people along the way who have encouraged and supported me.” She’s grateful for Belfast-based community rowing and sailing organization Come Boating for helping her learn how to row and get her proverbial start. She’s grateful for the regular clients that keep her going through the winter. “I feel blessed to be able to do what I do with my body, in this boat, in this place, and all the wonderful people I get to meet along the way.”
To learn more or to book a row with Nicolle, visit dorywomanrowing.com or follow Nicolle on Instagram @dorywomanrowing
Michele Christle’s (she/her) work has been published in Action Yes, Cultural Survival, Maine Homes by Down East, Maine Women Magazine, The Kenyon Review, VIDA: Her Kind and is forthcoming in Down East Magazine. She served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon and received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. FMI michelechristle.com.