BELFAST, Maine — Nicolle Littrell casts off and heads onto the water almost silently, creating barely a ripple in the water.
She pilots her boat, Sorciere, and a passenger through a maze of craft moored in the busy harbor on a sun-splashed summer morning. We pass dinghies, fishing boats, lobster boats, sleek sailing vessels and a monstrous yacht tied up on the dock.
Littrell greets the people she encounters on other boats with a cheery “good morning,” the joy evident in her voice.
Sorciere, dwarfed by most of the other craft, glides along the water. Yet even the myriad sounds of the working waterfront and the cry of seagulls flying overhead fade into the background.
All that is discernible is subtle splashing, followed by the creaking leather sleeves on the 9-foot oars cycling rhythmically through the oar locks.
“I love to be out here. It engages my sense of adventure and also I find it very soothing and peaceful and healing,” Littrell said as she confidently and smoothly rows across the water.
Sorciere is a 19 1/2-foot Swampscott dory, a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat developed in the 1840s for fishing and lobstering along the Massachusetts coast.
While virtually every other boat in the harbor has at least a small outboard motor, Littrell relies on pure womanpower to propel Sorciere.
“My friends said a dory is suited well to these dynamic waters. It slides off the waves and turns on a dime,” she said.
The New York native is a former University of Maine lecturer, domestic violence victim advocate and actress who lists filmmaker and photographer among her current pursuits.
In June, she added a new title: Registered Maine Guide.
The 52-year-old Littrell operates DoryWoman Rowing, an ocean-based guide service. She takes clients on tours of the harbor and Penobscot Bay and also offers rowing instruction.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife does not have a Registered Maine Guide certification specifically for ocean-rowing guides. Instead, Littrell earned her patch as a sea-kayak guide.
“Rowing and kayaking couldn’t be more different,” said Littrell, whose acquired proficiency in kayaks has enabled her to work part time as a guide and instructor across the bay with Castine Kayak Adventures.
According to Game Warden Cpl. Steve Allaire, chairperson of the advisory board for the licensing of Maine Guides, the sea-kayaking certification includes all activities involving watercraft propelled by paddles. He said there are some guides who employ rowing in their ocean activities.
Littrell’s introduction to rowing came after she arrived in Belfast in 2000 through participation with Come Boating! The nonprofit provides a variety of boating programs aimed at preserving the city’s maritime heritage and strengthening its connection to the sea.
For rowing, Come Boating! uses Cornish pilot gigs, 32-foot boats that feature six rowers and a coxswain who steers from the stern. The organization holds regular events and races.
Littrell was inspired and motivated by the women in the group, many of whom were older than her, but most of whom were accomplished rowers. She was hooked.
In 2014, an elbow injury forced her to stop rowing. Four years later, with her 50th birthday approaching, she returned to the pilot gigs and the group of women she so admired.
“I’m competitive. I really loved the feeling,” she said of racing with her fellow rowers. “I was totally blown away, they totally kicked my ass.”
As was the case for thousands of Mainers, 2020 was a year filled with uncertainty for Littrell. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses and community groups. All Come Boating! programs were canceled.
“I thought, oh my God, what am I going to do?” she said. “Within a couple weeks, I really started to lose my mind.”
Littrell, the mother of a teenage son Leo, was working as an advocate for victims who were experiencing domestic violence. With a desire to get back out on the water, she began looking for a boat.
Advice from friends led her to the Swampscott dory. She used some of her pandemic stimulus funds to purchase Sorciere, a boat built in 2005 by middle school students in Westbrook that had been used in the Compass Project based at Biddeford High School.
Having the ability to row more often provided a needed break from the emotional stress of her job. It also encouraged her to consider becoming a guide.
In March of this year, Littrell lost her job. The development provided the final spark she needed to study for her Maine Guide’s license, a prerequisite to starting her business.
With an academic and teaching background that focused on gender-based studies, her pride in being a woman guide is reflected in the business name, DoryWoman Rowing.
In researching women rowers, she was shocked to find out the word dorywoman, in contrast with doryman, is virtually nowhere to be found.
“I’m interested in examining and unpacking the status quo,” Littrell said. “I want to look at the block or bias against women in rowing traditional boats.”
She draws inspiration from the likes of heroic Rhode Island lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis, Cornelia “Fly Rod Crosby,” the first licensed Maine Guide, and New York author, guide and conservationist Anne LaBastille, who were groundbreaking women in their respective eras.
Littrell admits she does get an occasional quizzical look or comment from people when she is rowing around the harbor.
“I’ve had a lot of looks, but I feel like for most people, it’s looks of pleasure or of joy,” she said.
DoryWoman Rowing launched in August, giving people a unique way to experience the Maine coast. She guides single clients or groups of up to three people.
Littrell stresses boating and water safety and has her head on a swivel looking for potential obstacles. The dory features a pole-mounted rear-view mirror.
Her tours include historical information about the Belfast waterfront and are filled with details about the numerous birds, animals and fish found there.
Loons, cormorants and seals patrol the waters, waiting for passing schools of bait fish. On this day, a wayward gray squirrel swam across the river as a first-time rower in the dory tried to grasp the proper technique.
Working on the water has not only helped Littrell become physically stronger but has provided a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
“It is about my relationship with this boat and my relationship with myself and continually pushing against my comfort zone,” Littrell said, “and all the while building my skills and building my confidence.”
She hopes to remain busy this fall, when the foliage will provide a colorful backdrop, but she also plans to be on the water during the winter months.
Despite numerous career changes and challenges, Littrell believes she is pulling in the right direction.
“I feel like guiding is very much who I am,” she said. “I like people. I like the outdoors. I like adventure.
“I really feel lucky to live here and I think it’s a really special place to have a business like this.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the year of Littrell’s arrival in Belfast.