Jim Gray, computing pioneer, missing at sea off California Coast

Click here to help scan satellite pictures and help with the search for Jim Gray.

The New York Times is now covering the story as is Amazon’s Werner Vogels

Current news stories click here

—– earlier ——
My pal Tom, a very experienced sailor himself, just informed me of Jim Gray’s misfortune:

He was sailing offshore, alone, in good weather with a well-equipped yacht. He’s said to have “more than 10 years’ experience,” but reports from friends say he’s been sailing much longer than that.

My guess is man-overboard. He would have known about keeping a harness on at all times when offshore if he’s as experienced as has been said, but he was on a trip to scatter his mother’s ashes and his emotions may have clouded his judgement. Or he might not have been as experienced as his friends thought and he may not have been clipped in.

Honestly, when I was young and dumb I went out alone, but I wouldn’t want to go out offshore alone. Or would I? I’ve been from Salem to Marblehead and to Gloucester without anyone on board. He was going to the Farallon Islands, though, which is ~25 miles out. That’s pretty far out to be alone.

Other possibilities are:

Container collision: containers are a lethal hazard offshore. Containers overboard from a ship float awash for months and can kill a yacht in seconds if the yacht rams them at an angle that staves in the hull.

Ship collision: thought to be somewhat less likely b/c the weather was good and he was out for a day sail.

Catastrophic health issue: he is 63, but in good health.

Equipment failure: As you may recall, this can be a problem.

49 thoughts on “Jim Gray, computing pioneer, missing at sea off California Coast

  1. Pingback: Jim Gray missing at sea « tharwood.blog

  2. Tom I just wrote Scott who has some Google contacts. I think we could round up a lot of people to manually review high rez satellite imagery, which must exist for that area though I’m guessing much of it is from classified sources where they are unwilling to examine it for this purpose?

  3. I am here and ready to assist. Just point me to the data to start reviewing…

    I have been following this case for a few days.

  4. The Coast Guard has been favored with excellent search conditions, and say even if Gray was in a small raft, they would have spotted him.

    So are they saying the boat must have sunk? How could they cover all the possible square miles out there with a visual inspection?

  5. Well, there are a lot of square miles to the ocean. It has the advantage, though, of being more or less flat and featureless. I’m not sure what the effective search radius of a Herkey-bird might be, but it would be considerable.

    On the other hand: I recall my father-in-law’s diaries of life on the Enterprise in 1942. The most common aircraft loss scenario was “went on patrol and was never seen again.” These SBD scout bombers would have similar flight characteristics to a C-130, and they were looking for a 900 foot long aircraft carrier to return to.

    My default theory remains man overboard, but in a MOB situation they’d find the boat. I presume the islands have been thoroughly searched…

  6. C&C 40 vanishing without a trace of floating debris or skipper? And so close to SF? Amazing! Would think the boat would be spotted by now if were afloat. I’ve done a fair amount of sailing, some of it just offshore. My worst fear and my worst scares offshore happened when too close to land or shoals.

    Could Jim have hit a submerged rock just off the Farallons? If that happened the same time riding a swell down the impact could possibly hole the hull. That or if attempting to anchor off one of the Farallons a mishap could have occurred resulting in man overboard, the boat then getting smashed against the island and sinking out of sight. Farfetched, I know… just thinking aloud.

  7. Thanks for the photo link, aptosca. The islands do look pretty easily searchable. There’s also sign of habitation.

    Looks like there’s considerable reef area, which could play into your scenario, Kip. If the boat grounded, filled, and sank off the Farallons, though, I would expect some sign of the vessel — if not Jim himself — would be on the islands.

  8. I, too, am at something of a loss. Where’s the vessel?

    – No sign of the vessel despite an effective search
    – Search suspended
    – Harbors checked
    – No evidence Jim intended to do himself harm
    – Google folks reviewing sat imagery

    If she hit a container, there would probably be time for a Mayday. I have heard of craft filling in seconds after such an event, though.

    Seems unclear whether Jim had an EPIRB on board. I must confess I don’t carry one, either.

    Other scenarios that could be considered?

    Any smuggling going on in the area? Seems too busy for much smuggling or piracy.

  9. Good find on the Google stuff Kip.

    Tom I think smuggling and piracy are almost unheard of in that area. There are bandits down in Mexico, esp. I understand from Tijuana to Ensenada, but I’m not sure if problems extend offshore.

  10. BTW, just to clarify — “I” in Joe’s original posting is me, tharwood.

    Joe’s not nearly so dumb as I am and would not go offshore in a small boat by himself. He has gone out in a small boat with me, and we did once require rescue. In my defense I would just point out that I was 13 at the time 🙂

    And, of course, tharwood == Tommo depending on whether or not I’m logged in to wordpress.

  11. A few news report snips . . .
    “Just before losing his cell phone coverage, Gray called his wife and his daughter, reporting gorgeous conditions.”
    “The weather was clear, the winds were light, the waves 4-5 feet high, according to weather reports.”
    “The Coast Guard reports that Tenacious is believed to have a liferaft and EPIRB aboard but that the EPIRB has not been activated.”

  12. Brin was exploring whether recent satellite imagery provided for the company’s popular Google Earth mapping software could be used to spot Gray’s boat, a Google spokeswoman said.

    This from a KTVU report – sounds great though if the USCG is right and they have covered all the territory, then this won’t help?

  13. The EBIRB should have deployed and auto-activated if Tenacious sank. If Jim went overboard, then Tenacious should be afloat or wrecked, but either way some evidence of her would more likely than not be found.

    Hull speed of a C&C 40 is 6.7 knots. [Hull speed is the maximum speed a displacement hull, such as the C&C 40, can attain in normal conditions] In light winds, she might make 3-5 knots.

    If she hit a container at speed, and especially if her balsa core was wet, then she might go down very fast. This is starting to seem a likely scenario… argh.

    With the Google guys already looking at imagery, I guess there is little we can contribute. Anyone know if a search was done of the Oregon harbors?

  14. I don’t know if sat imagery at Google’s resolution could differentiate one sailboat from another well enough to make a positive ID. It will be very useful for scouring the coast for wreckage, alas.

  15. “with the help of Microsoft engineers and Cingular Wireless, they have determined that the last evidence that Gray’s PDA was operating was 7:30 p.m. Sunday”
    “She also said there has been no sign of cell phone pings, since Gray called his wife and daughter on Sunday morning from the yacht.”

    You’d think Jim would have called his wife later in the day after he got back within cell phone coverage area. Since he did not and his PDA still working at 7:30 pm would seem possible he was still in the vicinity of the Farallons at that time, 2 hours after sunset.

    Anybody know if it has been reported whether he planned to scatter the ashes on shore, or at sea just offshore from the islands?

  16. So sunset is about 1730 in the SF bay area? Plenty dark out on the water two hours after sunset. If he was running hard to get back to port, he might not have been checking the cell for coverage all that frequently; although, under similar circumstances, I’d be calling home as soon as I were in range. So perhaps there is a parallel to the Kims’ scenario, and the PDA established a data connection while the voice service was still out of range? I don’t know enough about the physics behind wireless to comment. But on that hypothesis, one could build models of the data/voice coverage zones and get some idea of the zone he was in. If only Eric F. worked down there…

  17. Farallon Islands – historical tidbits . . .

    “The first European to record the islands was the English privateer Sir Francis Drake, who landed on the islands on 24 July 1579, in order to collect seal meat and bird eggs for his ship”

    “The Russians maintained a sealing station in the Farallones from 1819 to 1838, decimating the islands’ population of fur seals”

    “Noonday Rock, at 5 km WNW of the North Farallones derives its name from the clipper ship that struck it in 1862 and sank within one hour.”

    from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farallon_Islands

  18. There seems to be a bit of cruel irony in the fact that Gray’s pioneering efforts included MS Terraserver which paved the way for the computer mapping applications now in widespread use, but not helpful enough to find him.

  19. Ed Lazowska, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington and a friend of Gray said “This is an unbelievable mystery, in addition to a tragedy,” Lazowska said. “How does a 40-foot red sailboat disappear off the face of the earth? … Jim’s a very capable, very cautious guy. I can’t imagine what could have happened.”

    Fair weather, 40′ boat vanishes. No trace. Incredible. Could Jim have scuttled her?

  20. Can’t find any worthy Jim Gray news reports anywhere dated today. Anyone know of a website tracking in detail who is doing what, where, now …in connection with whatever search is happening, completed or planned?

  21. Kip, last I heard was that USCG planned to suspend their search at 1300 PST “unless.” No news since then, so I presume they did suspend. Various reports of private search parties waiting to pick up the slack, but nothing concrete that I know.

    Something about scuttling or intentional harm doesn’t feel right to me. I’m still thinking accident, but that’s not backed by any rationale.

  22. I do not know what sort of resolution the various satellites have but since these are aerial views perhaps family photos of the yacht might be digitized to aid in analyzing satellite images to locate the target vessel.

    A slightly submerged container, a whale,… there are a lot of possibilities but most yachts have automatic equipment aboard though sometimes the epirb devices are stowed.

  23. Tommo, are you on the east coast? I’ve sailed out of Newport heading Nantuket way, some. Often would leave NP early evening and sail through part or sometimes all the night. Had some wonderful times. A few scary ones too! I was brought up on the West Coast and boated / sailed it quite extensively. I found sailing the east coast so very different. more hazardous I thought too. Extensive shoals, frequent fog. The odd hurricane. But loved every moment!

  24. by marinist 15 hours ago – digg.com comments:

    “I hope he didn’t get in the water around the Farallones, because that’s one of the worst great white shark areas. It’s a breeding ground for seals and consequently a feeding ground for sharks. Even in good weather, it’s an unpredictable area due to tides and interacting currents. A rogue wave could surprise even a capable skipper”

  25. Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Amy Marrs called Gray’s disappearance a mystery because the weather was good, he was in good health and the boat was equipped with radios, flares and an emergency beacon.

    Tom Barclay, Gray’s colleague at Microsoft’s Bay Area Research Center, said Thursday that three private pilots were searching the coastline.

    “We’re still hoping Jim had some kind of engine malfunction and he just limped into a cove,” he said.

    by Marcus Wohlsen, The Associated Press
    Feb 2, 2007 2:15 AM

  26. I know that in the sixties a rather large number of yachts were lost at sea in perfect weather and it was suspected that robberies/murders were taking place and perhaps the vessels were being used on drug runs rather than being scuttled. I don’t think things like this go on today though. There was on rather broke couple in Orange County who answered an ad for a yacht-for-sale and killed the owners while ‘taking her out for a spin’. But overall, I do not see foul play as at all likely in this particular incident unless it took place in a sheltered cove.

    Something sudden. A rogue wave, derelict debris, the amorous attentions of a whale…something. The boat was well equipped (although query as to battery freshness in that epirb) and well sailed. Weather was fair and the seas relatively calm. The only negative might be that the epirb was stowed in a locker or something.

    I wonder as to older versions of satellite images? Is there some way of going through the historical images and identifying his yacht and its track? At some point the “next” satellite pass would fail to show the yacht and we would atleast know where and when whatever happened. Its a large ocean but with recent position information and course and wind information, it should be a simple matter of ded reckoning to figure out from where he went missing.

  27. Anyone have details on the particular epirb that was aboard? Some of those can’t be stored upside down, some can. Are batteries for them replaced often? In an airplane’s annual inspection somethings only have to be ‘checked’ not replaced.

    If someone took a historical satellite image showing where the boat was moored that would give a satellite view of the vessel and you could look for unique views or arrangement of hatches, masts or something.

  28. Kip, yes, I am in the Boston area. Formerly based in Salem and Beverly harbors, north of town; for some reason I tend to head up to Maine, never went down to Nantucket or the Vineyard. Conditions around here can be amusing, it’s true.

    FG, I haven’t found any information regarding the model of EPIRB Jim is mooted to have equipped. I say “mooted” because one early story said he’d mentioned he was planning to get one, but the USCG seemed to think it had, in fact, been equipped.

    If that’s so, then it was probably a relatively new model. I see West Marine’s standard EPRIB models have a lithium battery with 5-11 year service life. (5 years is replacement interval, battery useful life estimated at 11).

  29. Incidentally killer whales were also spotted just off the coast of San Francisco on that day. I hope they are taking that into account.

  30. [39] – I’d think probability of killer whales a factor in the boat’s vanishing minuscule. They can appear scary to somebody not familiar with them but the chances of their attacking or colliding with a 40′ boat extremely remote. Possibly more of a hazard would be a snoozing gray whale.

  31. (41) Kip great article find. That is so amazing that so many people are now organizing and helping!!! Seems James Kim’s death is going to mean something to a lot of people in the future.

    Joe hats off to you again as you played a critical role in getting people together to do this kind of stuff.

  32. Kip I just came in to post the details and you’d already found it. They may need help at Amazon Mechanical Turk to analyze the data. That was a great use of that service…

    Dozens of colleagues at a number of tech firms had joined the search by Friday. Employees at Amazon.com, working with scientists at Google, Microsoft and NASA, had come up with an innovative solution to the eye-glazing task of scanning hundreds of satellite photographs of the waters off California’s coast.

    Amazon engineers were using imaging software to split photos from a DigitalGlobe satellite into smaller segments, and then loading them onto Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” website — where numerous “Friends of Jim” would be able to scan them from their own computers.

    The “Mechanical Turk” is a commercial service operated by Amazon that lets users recruit numerous helpers to do repetitive tasks that require human intelligence; For example, picking out a certain image in a series of photographs.

  33. I wonder if solo sailors have available to them some sort of ‘dead man’s pedal’? Is there anything that countsdown and sounds an alarm and if the sailor doesn’t hit the alarm-acknowledge button, something happens such as an electronic ‘ping’ of some sort on gps equipment.

    Ofcourse I doubt such a system, even if it existed, would have been used on what was contemplated as being a brief trip.

  34. I have processed over 500 images so far on mturk. Couple of observations.

    Image quality is really bad. Man that is frustrating that in 2007 we don’t have the proper equipment deployed for this kind of survey.

    Cloud cover is really frustrating – gives you an idea of how pilots must feel when they just can’t peer through the clouds to see what is underneath.

    Joe for the record I didn’t see any evidence of global warming in the images I reviewed!

  35. I don’t know if visual wavelength images are all that is available or not. I would think InfraRed superimposed on the visual or contrasted spatially would be helpful for finding boats.

    Should be a simple machine-learning technique to get a computer to differentiate between ‘ocean’ and ‘sailboat’.
    I guess the real problem is keeping track of which areas were ‘ocean’ and which were ‘cloud cover’.

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