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Search is suspended for missing Tomales Bay Oyster Co. owner

More than 24 hours after Charles “Tod” Friend, owner of the Tomales Bay Oyster Co., went missing, authorities have called off the search.

Friends, strangers, employees and others in the tight-knit Tomales community joined officials in the search Wednesday, scouring the coast and turning out in kayaks and their own single-engine boats to look for the man that one friend described as “a real champion.”

Respected and adored by those in the oyster farming community, Friend, 70, disappeared from his flat-bottomed skiff after dropping off employees at Tomales Bay’s Miller boat launch just 5 miles south of Hog Island about 3 p.m. Tuesday. Just 13 minutes later, the emergency radio call came in, reporting his unmanned boat motoring in circles in the bay’s waters. What happened in those 13 minutes is unknown, but will be the subject of a continued investigation by the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, which lists Friend as a missing person.

The search Wednesday lasted from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and involved 45 public safety personnel and about 30 more members of the public scanning the water and the shore for any signs of the missing man, said Marin County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Doug Pittman.

“It’s amazing how well known and how well liked he was,” Pittman said. “Everyone wanted to do something to try to help. He was well loved in the community, so there were people in kayaks, in private single-engine boats. I saw a couple of times where the boat was filled up with three or four people, slowly perusing the water.”

Kevin Lunny, former owner of the now-closed Drakes Bay Oyster Co. just 5 miles west of Friend’s operation as the crow flies, said he was “one of those people that was just born with a heart of gold.”

The oyster-farming community is a tight-knit bunch, but Lunny was especially close to Friend because of the work he put in trying to save Drakes Bay Oyster Co. as it went through a lengthy court battle that led to its closure.

“I’ll tell you what, when we had the walls caving in on us, and not enough time to accomplish what was being demanded of us, Tod dropped everything,” Lunny said. “He brought boats over, he brought his crew out to help us with the work we needed to do in Drakes Estero, and in some cases stayed until midnight. He always had a smile on his face and absolutely was offended if we tried to suggest that we should pay him for his time. ... He truly cares, and he really stands out in the community as someone who puts himself second. And those friends are rare.”

Friend was on his way south to the boat ramp in Marshall near his oyster farm, a 4-mile trip from the Miller boat launch, when employees on a Hog Island Oyster Co. boat nearby noticed his empty skiff.

At Hog Island Oyster Co., the number of employees staffing the oyster-sorting table steadily dwindled Wednesday afternoon as more left to join the search effort.

Friends and family sipped beer on the patio outside The Marshall Store, on Highway 1, the mood somber. According to a 2009 article in the West Marin Citizen, Friend shared ownership of the place, which includes an oyster bar and smokehouse, with his daughter, Heidi, and son, Shannon.

“He’s just going to be badly, badly missed,” Lunny said. “He has a beautiful family.”

Friend spent his earlier years managing his father’s 50-acre vineyard north of Healdsburg, according to the West Marin Citizen, before switching over to aquaculture as an employee of the Hog Island Oyster Co. in 1989. In 2009, Friend took over the Tomales Bay Oyster Co. Established 100 years earlier, it is California’s oldest continuously run shellfish farm.

“I was always touched by his excitement about a beautiful oyster,” Lunny said. “He would look at this oyster, and he would show me, and he would turn it over, and he’d say, ‘Can you believe this?’ ... That’s a special individual that really takes his business to heart. He is not just some business owner. This guy is a real champion.”

Staff Writer Nick Rahaim contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com.

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