SAN FRANCISCO — Friends of a renowned Bay Area computer scientist whose sailboat vanished this week off the coast here pledged Friday to continue hunting for the missing sailor even though the U.S. Coast Guard has called off its search.
Jim Gray, 63, a research pioneer and founder of Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center, left San Francisco on Sunday aboard his 40-foot sailboat, Tenacious, to scatter his mother's ashes off the Farallon Islands, about 30 miles west of the city. He planned to be back that day.
Late Thursday, after four days of scouring coastal waters with three helicopters and two C-130 airplanes, Coast Guard search and rescue officials announced that they would suspend their quest for Gray.
Officials expressed frustration that their wide search net -- covering 300 miles from the Oregon border south to the Channel Islands -- had turned up no clues about the disappearance of the longtime yachtsman.
"The decision to suspend a search is never an easy one, and our hearts and thoughts are with Dr. Gray's family and friends during this time. Although this search is suspended, if new information arises, it will be investigated," Capt. David Swatland, deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, said in a statement.
A Coast Guard spokeswoman Friday called the lack of clues "a mystery."
"We're baffled, considering that much of the search area was saturated by our teams more than once under excellent conditions," said Lt. Amy Marrs. "If he or the vessel would have been there, we would have found it.
"We didn't find any clues that gave us any indication that he had ever been there," she said. "It's frustrating for us. I can only imagine how his friends and family must feel."
Members of the group Friends of Jim continued their efforts Friday, using satellite imagery supplied by a Google Earth data provider called Digital Globe to try to find the research scientist referred to on one Internet site as "the father of satellite mapping on the Web."
"We're confident that Jim is OK," said Mike Olson, a vice president at Oracle and spokesman for Friends of Jim. "The important thing is to continue this search until we find him."
Friends and colleagues in the computer research world began banding together Tuesday to pool their technical expertise.
"By Tuesday morning we had a group assembled online," said James Frew, an associate professor of environmental science at UC Santa Barbara. "We all had expertise and said, 'There must be something we can do about this.' For somebody like Jim, people will come out of the woodwork no matter what. But this time, the woodwork is an electronic network with a real potential of finding him."
While experts reviewed the satellite data, three private pilots hired by the friends have searched the California shoreline for signs of Gray.
"The satellites that feed Google Earth are feeding this effort," Olson said.
Gray studied at UC Berkeley, earning his bachelor's degree in engineering mathematics in 1966 and a doctorate in computer science in 1969. He was the first recipient of a doctorate from Berkeley's computer science department, friends say.
He began working as a technical fellow for Microsoft Research in 1995, after stints as an industrial researcher and software designer for such firms as IBM, Tandem Computers and DEC.
His career focus, colleagues say, has been using computers to make scientists more productive. One long-standing project has been to dramatically increase the amount of storage on the average personal computer. Gray is also working on a project to allow home computer users to explore space in much the same detail as Google Earth offers.
In 1998, he won the prestigious Turing Award.
"Every person who goes to an automatic teller machine owes a debt to Jim Gray," Olson said, adding that Gray helped perfect transaction processing, technology employed at ATMs. "His innovative work is spread across computer science."
Friends on Friday described Gray as someone always happy to assist a colleague.
"Jim Gray is not only one of the most influential scientists in the world, he is also the kind of person you would want your children to grow up to be," Rick Rashid, senior vice president for research at Microsoft, said in a statement. "His willingness to give of himself, educate, mentor, support others, solve the hard problems people bring to him and reach out to make the world better make him one the field's most loved individuals."
Frew said Gray's friends and colleagues refuse to give up hope despite the mystery of where he might be. "The Coast Guard said that with the people and equipment they had out there they should have found something even as small as a beer cooler," he said. "That's just weird."