Nearly a week after Microsoft computer scientist Jim Gray vanished along with his sailboat, his high-tech colleagues tapped into their problem-solving...

Share story

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Nearly a week after Microsoft computer scientist Jim Gray vanished along with his sailboat, his high-tech colleagues tapped into their problem-solving prowess and an array of satellite and software technology.

Even a modified spy plane belonging to NASA was brought in to try to crack one of California’s more bizarre maritime mysteries in recent memory.

“Jim’s just so well-known, so there are people that have worked with him who are now at Amazon, and at Google, and elsewhere,” said Dave Tennenhouse, a computer scientist and former colleague of Gray, 63.

Private pilots, colleagues of Gray and volunteers from Silicon Valley firms stepped in to the breach when the Coast Guard called off its search Thursday after finding no sign of Tenacious, the 40-foot sailboat Gray took out Sunday to scatter his mother’s ashes near the Farallon Islands.

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

No one has seen or heard from Gray since Sunday morning, when he called a family member by cellphone from the open sea.

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 loading them onto Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” Web site, where numerous “Friends of Jim” would be able to scan them from their own computers.

High-tech tools


Some of the tools friends and colleagues of Jim Gray are using in their search:

Satellite images were downloaded and analyzed in search of Gray’s sailboat or its debris.

Employees from Google and other Silicon Valley firms are helping to process and study hundreds of images and video shot over the search site Friday by a NASA research aircraft.

Amazon.com engineers are using imaging software to split satellite photos into smaller “tiles,” and loading them onto a special Web site where numerous “Friends of Jim” can help scan them from their own computers.

San Jose Mercury News; NASA

“We’re confident that Jim is OK,” said Mike Olson, a vice president at Oracle and spokesman for “Friends of Jim.”

In an unusual move, NASA on Friday sent one of its ER-2 aircraft, a civilian version of the U-2 spy planes. The solo-piloted aircraft, equipped with video and high-resolution digital cameras, spent three hours scouring about 7,000 square miles off the coast, in the hopes the cameras might pick up the boat or debris it may have left behind.

Gray studied at the University of California, Berkeley, earning his bachelor’s degree in engineering mathematics and a doctorate in computer science. He began working as a technical fellow for Microsoft Research in 1995.

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.”

Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.