The Pied Piper of the Pacific Northwest

Oregon native Jim Rard has introduced hundreds of cruisers to the joys of Alaska’s untamed coasts.

pacific northwest

Jeanneau 49 Ruby Slippers, Sail Alaska 2014

Ruby Slippers, Jim Rard's Jeanneau 49P, flies its distinctive kite while leading a flotilla through Alaskan waters.Neil Rabinowitz

Like many small boys, Jim Rard was fascinated by boats. While there were myriad fishing skiffs and canoes populating the rivers of his logging-focused hometown of Sutherlin, Oregon, Rard’s eye was always drawn to proper seaworthy sailboats. Rard’s youthful dreams required a vessel, and — to his inquisitive but inexperienced mind — the easiest way to acquire one was to pick up his tools and build his own steed using his fledgling carpentry skills. “The first boat that I ever built was off of a picture,” recalls Rard, some 55 years later, with a laugh. “The only problem was that I couldn’t see what was below the water, so I assumed that it was flat!”

While Rard’s first vessel utterly lacked righting moment, the important thing was that his young mind was already scheming to find paths to the sea and a life of adventure far removed from Oregon’s mossy old-growth forests. Other homespun vessels followed, including a raft that was fashioned after Kon-Tiki, and while Rard never completed his plans to float down Oregon’s rivers to the Pacific Ocean, the hundreds of thousands of cruising miles that he’s amassed since then — including an extensive Pacific Rim cruise and 15 trips to Alaska from his adopted state of Washington — more than compensate for this (likely prudent) shortcoming.

But to focus only on Rard’s personal cruising would be to completely miss the fact that he has introduced hundreds of sailors to the magic of cruising Alaska’s forever-wild coasts, and that he is also the founder of Marine Servicenter, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most successful boatyards and dealership/brokerages.

While there’s no predetermined route to a life of cruising adventures, it helps to learn the fundamentals at an early age. True, Sutherlin, Oregon, is a landlocked logging town, but Rard’s childhood taught him to diagnose and fix all things mechanical while also giving him a solid work ethic — skills that would reward him when he opened the doors to Marine Servicenter in 1977 on the shores of Seattle’s Lake Union.

As for learning sailing’s many ropes, Rard’s knowledge was largely self-taught from books and from hours spent on his different boats, beginning with a humble Columbia 22 that he bought in 1974 (which was quickly replaced three months later by a Ranger 33, and then by a Tartan 37 the following year) and culminating in his present Jeanneau 49P, Ruby Slippers, aboard which he has logged more than 45,000 nautical miles, including a two-year South Pacific voyage and five Alaska trips. Sandwiched in between these adventures have been hundreds of bluewater races, offshore deliveries, smaller cruises and milk runs on both coasts as well as on foreign waters.

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Rard coordinates details with the rest of his flotilla.Sam Bisset

Rard says his career in the marine industry began thanks to a spike in oil prices. In the early ’70s, he was working as a crew chief on a helicopter team that was paid to fertilize Oregon and Washington’s sweeping timber forests, but the job came to a surprise landing when oil prices — and, as a result, fertilizer prices — became prohibitively expensive. Fortuitously for Rard’s career track, this was around the time that his yacht dealer in Seattle noticed his marine-diesel skills — a rarity in that era, as most vessels still used gasoline-fired engines. Rard was soon renting the dealer’s workshop, and Marine Servicenter took its nascent steps. “I was looking for an adventure, and sailing came to mind,” remembers Rard of his transition to the still-fledgling marine industry. Since those modest beginnings, Rard and his team have built Marine Servicenter into a trusted dealership, brokerage house and full-service repair yard, with two locations in Anacortes and one in Seattle. Along the way, the company has sold more than 400 new sailboats and some 1,600 brokerage boats, while helping countless other sailors with issues ranging from dead starter batteries to extensive refits.

In 1995, Rard took the year off to build a new house (by hand) for his family in Arlington, Washington, shortly after the arrival of twin daughters Jessie and Molly. “I told my wife, Jeanna, we have 12 years to get ready to get out of town and go cruising,” recalls Rard of the day that his daughters were born. So, in October of 2006, the Rards took a leave of absence from their lives ashore, provisioned their brand-new Jeanneau 49P, which they christened Ruby Slippers, and sailed south from Anacortes, first to Mexico and then across the Pacific, eventually reaching New Zealand and Australia before arriving back in the United States in October 2008.

“If you get a perfect piece of sailing about once every 10 years, it’s enough to sustain a sailor,” says Rard. “We had a few of those moments on this trip that lasted for days at a time. Being able to see it through my daughters’ eyes was pretty special.” These perfect times included a 17-day passage from the Galápagos Islands to the Marquesas that included a 14-day spinnaker set, as well as a glory run from Minerva Reef to New Zealand. “The boat was flying along at 9.5 knots, and we hadn’t touched the wheel or trimmed the sails in two days,” says Rard of the run that delivered his family to New Zealand, a country he’d been waiting to see for 20-plus years. Along the way, the Rards befriended the crews of three other boats, and together the four sailboats cruised the two-island nation, lending help and — in Jim’s case — expertise and spare parts as needed, while also sharing great times and camaraderie. This was the Rards’ first real experience cruising with a small flotilla, and the New Zealand sunshine left an indelible impression. “I always thought that I’d do some singlehanded sailing,” says Rard, “but then there’s no one there to share it with.”

Sharing sailing with others has always attracted Rard, both in his business and on his personal boats. While Rard’s New Zealand cruise taught him about the upsides of flotilla cruising, it was a previous experience that helped prepare him to lead his legendary trips to Alaska. In 1992, David Rockefeller Jr. asked Rard to supply and outfit a fleet of four Jeanneaus, which Rard delivered to Ketchikan, Alaska, so Rockefeller and 300 or so of his friends (who commuted via floatplanes, coming and going in rotating groups over the course of a summer) could sail to Kodiak after first visiting Prince William Sound and the Aleutian Islands. After the trip, Rard arranged for delivery captains to bring the boats back to Seattle, where they were sold. “This planted the seed for my Alaska trips,” says Rard. “After my South Pacific trip, I was looking for other ways to use the boat.”

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Kayaks are an ideal way to see glaciers up close.Bill Richey

The impetus for Rard’s progression to flotilla leader came in 2010 at a Pacific Northwest Jeanneau owners rendezvous, where an owner was sharing a slide show from a recent Alaska cruise. Afterward, the presenter asked how many other owners were planning to cruise Alaska the following year. A single hand punctuated the otherwise empty airspace. “So I asked, ‘Who would go if I took my boat and my tools and led the way?’” says Rard. “All 12 people raised their hands!”

So, in 2011, Rard led a group of 10 of his Jeanneau customers from Anacortes to Alaska, offering five-, seven- and nine-week cruises, depending on each owner’s interest level and availability. He dubbed the program Sail Alaska. “I started out leading these trips wanting to thank people for being customers — giving back to the sailing community and getting the owners out there,” says Rard. “I never thought I’d lead a flotilla cruise — much less 15 of them — but the New Zealand experience morphed into this.”

While Rard requests a sailing resume from each Alaska-bound flotilla skipper, he is careful to always have at least one extra helmsman aboard Ruby Slippers who can pinch-hit aboard other boats as needed, and he’s also careful to carry enough spare parts and tools to negotiate most jobs. The combination of Rard’s cruising experience and his floating boatyard has given hundreds of cruisers the courage and conviction to follow their dreams to Alaska, where they watch orcas hunt seals, spy bald eagles too numerous to count, and smoke freshly caught salmon on otherwise deserted beaches. And that’s not to mention the fantastic scenery, sailing, elaborate potluck dinners, beach parties, pack ice, blueberry-hunting missions, or the lessons of seamanship and smart cruising practices that flotilla members enjoy, along with errant bear encounters and the occasional opportunity to land a 160-pound halibut.

“Part of it is selfish,” admits Rard, who loves to document his cruises with photography and videography projects that he self-produces on his laptop (typically set to guitar music that he often plays and records, sometimes with his daughters’ help). “I want to see the cruising grounds myself, so each year about half of our destinations are new and half are places that I’ve been. We maximize the trip as far as scenery while being as flexible as we can for weather.” To date, Rard’s leadership resume is clean of any mishaps. “It’s the same as bringing my girls sailing — you get to see people being kids again,” he says.

As for his future plans, Rard recently wrapped up his 2016 Sail Alaska cruise, but 2017 is ripe with exciting possibilities. Both Jessie and Molly Rard fell in love with cruising and with “perfect days of sailing” during their two-year South Pacific odyssey aboard Ruby Slippers, and are wisely asking their parents for a second antipodean adventure as their graduation gifts, once the ink dries on their college diplomas. “I want to do one more South Pacific warm-water cruise. Tahiti to the Tuamotus to Tonga and home,” says Rard wistfully. “Alaska seems to get better each time we cruise there, and I think I can make the South Pacific better this time, with more cameras and the chance to visit some of the places we missed, while also revisiting our favorite spots.”

David Schmidt is Cruising World’s electronics editor.