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Massive search fails to turn up sailor

When the Coast Guard didn’t find Microsoft scientist Jim Gray, volunteers stepped up the effort

When the Coast Guard didn’t find Microsoft scientist Jim Gray, volunteers stepped up the effort

What was supposed to be a contemplative sail for Jim Gray, one of the world’s premier computer scientists, turned into a nautical mystery that gripped a worldwide audience and reverberated through science and high-tech communities from Silicon Valley to Cambridge, Mass.

On Sunday morning Jan. 28, Gray, 63, left San Francisco Marina alone on Tenacious, his C&C 40, reportedly to sail out to the FarallonIslands 27 miles west of the Golden GateBridge. There he had planned to scatter the ashes of his mother. The day was tailor-made for such a cruise, with good visibility and only a breath of breeze. At 2 p.m. (PST) the weather data buoy in the area recorded 2 knots from the northeast and 5-foot seas.

Earlier in the day Gray had called his family, telling his daughter that the weather was beautiful and that he had spotted dolphins. Although well-provisioned, Gray hadn’t made plans for staying out overnight. When the red-hulled Tenacious hadn’t returned to her slip by 8:30 p.m., Gray’s wife, Donna, called the Coast Guard to report her husband overdue.

What followed was an intensive five-day search that included C-130 fixed-wing aircraft, HH-65 Dolphin helicopters, 87-foot patrol boats, and 47-foot Motor Lifeboats, plus vessels of other Bay Area authorities. The effort, however, failed to produce any signs of Gray, his boat or debris. Searchers scoured more than 130,000 square miles, from the Channel Islands to the south to the Oregon border, and 300 miles out to sea. Coast Guard units based in Los Angeles and Humboldt Bay joined the operation. In addition, hundreds of miles of coastline were surveyed in case Gray had taken shelter in a cove and was unable to communicate.

The Coast Guard says two leads for sightings of a red-hulled sailboat near the FarallonIslands and at StinsonBeach, a beach town north of San Francisco, didn’t pan out. The Coast Guard also says Gray’s PDA last synched with the Cingular Wireless tower in Daly City at 11:50 a.m. Sunday.

What made this case an international news story was Gray’s status as a scientist and researcher, considered by many as one of the world’s finest. He was the first student to receive a doctorate from the department of computer science at the University of California-Berkeley, in 1969. He worked for such companies as IBM, Tandem Computers and Digital Equipment Corp. His last job was with Microsoft Research’s eScience Group in San Francisco, where he and his colleagues developed databases, transaction processing systems and computer technology to make scientists more productive. Gray’s work touches consumers whenever they use ATMs, transfer money electronically, search the Internet or shop online. The recipient of the 1998 A.M. Turing Award — dubbed the Nobel Prize of computing — he also developed programs that make it possible to view space and satellite images on personal computers.

“He has democratized the field of astronomical research,” Ani Thakar, a JohnsHopkinsUniversity scientist, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Together, Thakar and Gray developed the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is considered the world’s largest astronomy database. “Just five years ago if you wanted to see into space, you had to apply for time on a large telescope,” says Thakar. “Now anyone with a computer can dial up a piece of the universe.”

It struck many as ironic that someone who helped map galaxies should disappear without a trace during a leisure sail on a calm day.

Gray bought Tenacious about 10 years ago in Southern California and kept the boat at the San Francisco Marina, near the St. Francis Yacht Club. He liked sailing solo and had attempted at least one single-handed voyage to Seattle, which he reportedly had to abandon because of engine problems and seasickness. Gray’s daughter, Heather, told the San Jose Mercury News that while her father carefully planned offshore trips, he also would leave important safety equipment at home.

“He’s a maverick. He’s had close calls. It’s just that this is so out of character for him to disappear and in such calm weather,” she says.

Based on information provided by Gray’s wife, the Coast Guard says he carried a “full complement of safety equipment” on Tenacious, including an auto-inflating life raft, radar reflector, marine band radio, safety harness, flare gun, and a 121.5 MHz EPIRB with manual and automatic activation. Heather Gray, on the other hand, says in the Mercury News that her father didn’t carry an EPIRB and that she doesn’t recall him ever using a VHF radio she gave him for his birthday two years ago as a backup for the on-board radio. Instead, she says, he used it at home as a weather radio. She also says in the newspaper that her father was in good spirits and that she doubted his mother’s death could have sent him “off the deep end.”

Assuming that Tenacious remained afloat, the Coast Guard’s search was based on the boat’s theoretical sailing speed of 6 to 8 knots. Drift patterns also were established in case Gray had to abandon ship for the life raft. “We had perfect search conditions, with light wind, calm seas and pretty good visibility,” says Capt. David Swatland, deputy sector commander of Coast Guard Sector San Francisco. “The plane crews reported that they could see things they normally can’t see out there, and [they] were certain that if the boat had been in the search area they would have seen it.”

Gray’s mysterious disappearancefueled much speculation, some as far-fetched as piracy and hijacking, which Swatland considered highly unlikely within 50 miles of the U.S. coast. Asked about the possibility of foul play or suicide, he says he couldn’t speculate, but he addressed a potential man-overboard situation with Gray’s chances of survival in 50 degree water. “Dr. Gray did not have a survival suit, and without [it] survivability is only a matter of hours,” Swatland says. He calls it “a worst-case scenario” but adds that there was no reason to suspect this had happened.

Others speculate that Gray might have collided with whales or a submerged container that could have sunk his boat quickly with the skipper still tethered by his safety harness, unable to reach the radio to call for help. The Coast Guard also examined the prospect of a collision between Tenacious and another vessel but says no evidence was found in support of this theory.

After halting the search Wednesday, Jan. 31, the Coast Guard resumed operations the following day and expanded the search pattern, to no avail. “We are somewhat stumped,” says Swatland. “A well-equipped boat in good conditions with an experienced sailor who’s been around the Bay area for quite some time … it’s been frustrating for us.”

The search was called off Feb. 1. “We’ve covered the area Mr. Gray is likely to have been [in] with the resources we have, but closing a search only comes after it has been determined we have done everything we can do to find someone,” says spokeswoman Lt. Amy Marrs. She says a passive search with extended communications continued, in hopes that boaters, marinas and fuel docks along the coast would report sightings of Tenacious or her skipper.

After the Coast Guard had pulled out, Gray’s peers in the science community stepped up with their own search that involved private planes and some of the latest Internet technology. High- resolution satellite images of the search area were split into smaller “tiles,” which then were made accessible on the Amazon Mechanical Turk Web site ( for users to download and search for clues. The search had been expanded to Mexico by Feb. 7, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News.

Among those who lent support to the search effort was Oracle chairman and America’s Cup challenger Larry Ellison, who says that his firm cooperated with other companies to analyze real-time photos of the search area that were captured with satellite cameras. Ellison lauded Gray as an innovator and evangelist who advanced computing, and expressed hope for a successful conclusion of the search. For the time being, however, the Coast Guard has suspended the case indefinitely, pending new developments.