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The Transformative Power of Rowing

By Nicolle Littrell

A group out for a row in the author’s dory on the Passagassawakeag River in Belfast. Photo by Jozsef Balla.

I grew up in landlocked upstate New York, the granddaughter of a dairy farmer. My only experience with boats was to float stick versions in the muddy streams that ran down the dirt roads on my grandfather’s farm after a rainstorm. That all changed when I moved to Maine in the summer of 1999.

My entry into the boating world happened when a friend convinced me to move onto his old sailboat, moored at the end of Belfast Harbor. We would often row back and forth (and sometimes swim) between our floating home and the shore.  

I stepped onto a Cornish-style wooden pilot gig for the first time in the summer of 2012, as part of Come Boating!, a community rowing and sailing program in Belfast. I absolutely loved it and became obsessed. Rowing proved to be an important outlet for me: a source of fitness and wellness, community and connection. And did I ever feel strong! This became increasingly important to me, as I approached turning 50, and contended with the rigors of single parenting. 

All of this came to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit Maine in the winter of 2020 and my beloved community rowing program was canceled (along with everything else). 

So I took a leap and bought my own boat, a traditional-style 19'5" wooden Swampscott dory. I named her Sorciere (“witch” in French), inspired by my love of the magical and mythic, and with a nod to my Franco-Canadian heritage. I’ve been rowing her ever since, year-round in Belfast Bay, through all four seasons and in all kinds of weather, wind and waves.    

Last summer, I became a licensed Maine Guide and launched DoryWoman Rowing, turning my passion into a unique new service. Through DWR, I offer rowing lessons, guided tours, and specialty seasonal rows in Belfast Bay and the Passagassawakeag River. Over the course of my inaugural season, I’ve had people in my boat from near and far—individuals, pairs, and trios of folks ranging from those who had never been in a boat before to those who had rowed in their youth. One thing was consistent, though: the joy of rowing a boat.  

My boat is a source of inspiration and play for me. Last October, I did a “Witches’ Row,” and in December, a row on the Solstice. I also love to photograph, film, and write about my rows. 

Winter rows on Penobscot Bay are particularly special. Photo by Nicolle Littrell

DoryWoman speaks to the under-representation of women, traditional craft, and rowing. As a former gender studies professor and media professional, challenging the gender status quo has been a big focus of my career. And now, rowing!

My rowing programs are open to all who seek fitness, wellness, and adventure on the water.

I rowed my way through the winter, along with several hale and hardy clients and friends. The transition from winter to spring is a marvelous time to be out on the water: navigating ice floes, contending with fierce northerly winds and the occasional snow squall, and observing the wildlife that lives in this watershed, both seasonally and year-round. This includes loons, eagles, buffleheads, seals, and otters. This liminal time of year feels even more magical, special, and, yes, adventurous than rows in the warmer months. There’s also the incredible stillness this time of year brings.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about rowing in the warmer months as well, and hope to expand my rowing programs. Accessibility is important to me. I want to get folks out on the water. There is nothing, simply nothing, like being in a small wooden boat in a big body of water. To propel a small craft through wind and waves with your body alone is empowering. The communion with water, light, and sky is healing. The access to wildlife makes you care more about this amazing place. Rowing is transformative—I know it has been for me.  

Photo by Nicolle Littrell Nicolle Littrell (photo below) is a licensed Maine Guide, filmmaker, photographer, and founded DoryWoman Rowing. Learn more at or on Instagram and Facebook @dorywomanrowing.


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