With the pandemic, many of us moved our jobs to our homes, and within that space we may choose a room that is comfortable and maybe comforting, too. Nicolle Littrell put a twist on that idea, opening a business in Belfast that is based in her happy place—a 19-1/2-foot wooden Swampscott dory, Sorciere.
Though she is from “land-locked upstate New York,” on the Mohawk River near Albany, her DoryWoman Rowing business has made her a fixture on the water of this river port city at the top of Penobscot Bay.
Littrell, 52, has had a varied career.
“I moved here from New York City, where I was an actress and a voice-over actor,” she said. Other jobs included being an advocate in the domestic violence field, a lecturer in gender studies at the University of Maine, and a position at Maine Media Workshops. She also works as a photographer and filmmaker.
I think the pandemic has inspired people to get out of their comfort zones and get back into their bodies.
Invited to visit by a friend, she “immediately fell in love with Maine,” she says.
Our conversation was recorded as Littrell rowed out of Belfast Harbor on a sunny but brisk early May day. And though she clearly is enamored of rowing, she was all business about safety and preparation for the excursion.The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Working Waterfront: When did you start this business?
Littrell: I started this business in August of last year.
WW: How did you conceive of this business, of rowing with people.
Littrell: I conceived of it because I love to row. This is right where I want to be. It was the pandemic that set me on this path. I was rowing with Come Boating! [Belfast’s community rowing program]. They have a winter rowing program. I rowed all winter and then the pandemic happened. I’ll never forget the last time we rowed. It was Sunday, March 15 .
Rowing has been this incredible, important outlet for me as a single parent and as a middle-aged woman. I started rowing in 2012 with Come Boating!, rowed for a couple of years, took a break, came back to it in 2018, in the lead-up to turning 50.
It’s been an incredible form of wellness for me, and fitness, and community, and connection. And so when the pandemic hit, I thought I was going to go out of my mind. This crazy idea came to me, “What if I get my own boat?”
WW: And the idea of making money doing this?
Littrell: I rowed by myself the first six months I had the boat. I rowed with my son, too. We actually rowed to Warren Island State Park [off Islesboro] for my birthday.
WW: That’s a haul.
Littrell: Yes. It was an odyssey.
I had invited folks I had rowed with in Come Boating! to row with me in the summer. With COVID, I don’t think people felt safe sharing space in the boat that first summer. But in the fall, they started coming out of the woodwork.
That companionable aspect was very satisfying, having someone else in the boat with me and teaching them how to row this boat, what I’ve learned. And I used to joke with my friends, I used to say, “Gosh, I wish I could be paid to row. I wish I could turn this into a business!”
But it was also that idea of offering wellness to people. I get so much out of rowing this boat, and I saw that my friends got so much out of it with me. And the next thing that happened was that I lost my job. And I thought, “OK! That’s the sign I needed to go for it.”
I started talking to the Coast Guard, the state, and finding out what I needed to do to make this a reality.
WW: And let’s talk about that. What sort of license do you need?
Littrell: They didn’t really know what to do with me at first. No one is doing anything like this, offering tours and lessons in a traditional wooden boat on the ocean. According to the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, I am the only person that is doing something like this. They were like, “No, what she needs to do is be is a sea kayak guide.”
I had to learn how to sea kayak. I took sea kayak courses. I took an immersive guide preparation course with Castine Kayak. I took my test on June 23 last year, and I passed!
WW: Was it practical or on paper or both?
Littrell: Both. It’s a hundred questions multiple choice and then it’s an oral exam. You meet with the examiners and they test you ranging from navigation to catastrophic situations.
WW: Tell me about the boat.
Littrell: She is a 19 ½ foot Swampscott dory. It’s a work boat, designed for fishing, carrying around a payload of cod. It was designed to be pulled on and off beaches which is what the topography of Swampscott, Mass. is. And she’s designed to carry a lot of weight. She gains more stability the more weight she has in her.
WW: And you can have up to how many passengers?
Littrell: I can have up to three other people in the boat. That’s pretty common. I take out all kinds of configurations. I do lessons and workout rows, occasionally someone will want a solo guided tour. But I often take out pairs, which is really fun. Two people can learn to row together.
WW: How far out do you go for the tours?
Littrell: I go maybe down to the City Park [about 1.25 miles] or up the river. Not that far. On a tour, we’re looking for wildlife and talking about wildlife that live here. We’re talking about the working waterfront, we’re talking about the history and heritage of this area, the Wabanaki peoples, Penobscot Bay, and how the bay used to freeze over.
WW: What sorts of people book the tours and the work-out rows?
Littrell: My first clients were brothers. Two men who were probably your age.
WW: So, young!
Littrell: And you don’t have to be a woman. I’ll get that question every now and then. “Can men row with you?” And I’m like, “Yup!” I’ve had people as young as seven years old, up to 70-something.
I’d say the majority of my clients, especially the regulars, are middle-aged women. But I’ve taken out families. I took out a group of 17-year-old boys last fall through [a Belfast-based youth program].
WW: And you went right through the winter?
WW: What’s the coldest day you were out here?
Littrell: Fifteen degrees. It doesn’t feel like that. I won’t take someone out on a windy, stormy day. It has to be very calm and it has to be warming up. By the time we came back, it was 21.
WW: Can I ask what you charge?
Littrell: Sure! My pricing ranges from $80 to $95 per person.
WW: What do people say when they get on the boat, like, “I really want to do this because…” and what do they say when they get out?
Littrell: What I hear a lot is, “I want to try something new.” I think the pandemic has inspired people to get out of their comfort zones and get back into their bodies. This is a very embodied experience, and I think a lot of us have been attached to our devices.
I went to the Governor’s Conference on Tourism, and I actually invited Gov. Mills to come for a row [laughs]. There was a concept there of low-impact or “slow” tourism, and that really resonated with me.
There’s nothing more low-impact and slow than what we’re doing now.
WW: And it’s sort of heritage tourism, as well.
WW: What is the break-down between people who live around here and visitors?
Littrell: The majority of clients this winter were my core group of regulars, local people, and people who would try a lesson for the first time. I offer these plans, these packages of four lessons. That’s really going to give you a good experience of what it’s like to row this boat.
And I have the work-out row, with a plan that has four work-out rows.
I did an ice row. I do snow rows.
WW: That’s really smart, to offer different experiences.
Littrell: Exactly. The other thing I pulled from the tourism conference was the growth of astro-tourism.
WW: What’s that?
Littrell: Guided experiences at night.
WW: Is there a female empowerment component to what you do?
Littrell: I believe so. I know that it’s been empowering for me.
WW: What has surprised you about the business?
Littrell: That people have wanted to row with me in the winter. I used to joke, “Who are these people?!” knowing that I am one of those people.
For more information see www.dorywomanrowing.com or follow Littrell on Instagram @dorywomanrowing.