The Widow Wave engages both as maritime tragedy and courtroom drama

Issue December 2015 By John B. Rest

The Widow Wave is so much more than an old "war story" by an attorney about one of his trials. It is a captivating tale about the loss of a private boat with a captain and his four passengers outside San Francisco Bay; it is about the preparation and trial of the ensuing wrongful death lawsuit; it is about the emotional highs and lows experienced by an attorney during the course of litigation. The author, Jay Jacobs, a maritime defense attorney, has given us a courtroom drama which is both an edge-of-your-seat trial seminar and also a reminder of the emotional and moral responsibilities of a trial attorney.

On the morning of March 9, 1984, the 34-foot cabin cruiser Aloha left Sausalito marina for salmon fishing at Duxbury Reef, off the coast of San Francisco. On board was owner Francis Dowd, a Raytheon executive with extensive boating experience, as well as his 19-year-old son, his brother-in-law, a friend and a business associate, Andy Ang. The boat was never seen nor heard from again and only the body of Francis Dowd was found floating in San Francisco Bay about a month later. Fifteen fishing boats left San Francisco Bay that morning heading for Duxbury Reef. Aloha was the only one that did not return.

Suit was brought by Ang's widow and five children against the estate of Francis Dowd. Jacobs, the author, with just 10 years of litigation experience, was retained by Allstate to defend the case against a highly successful and well-known plaintiff's counsel.

Even though there had been extensive sea and air search by the Coast Guard, no trace of the Aloha was found and there were no witnesses nor physical evidence which might provide a hint as to what happened. While there was extensive speculation in the newspapers as to what caused this loss, the worst recreational fishing boat accident in San Francisco's long maritime history, Jacobs needed to find admissible evidence that this tragedy was not the result of Dowd's negligence, but rather an accident without fault.

What makes this book so enjoyable to read is the balance Jacobs provides in sharing his legal theories, strategies and concerns with his self-deprecating insecurities and his sacred trust to protect his client's interest. Francis Dowd's widow, Janet, insisted that her husband "was not a perfect man but he was never careless … and never negligent … ever." He opines that if a jury attributed the death of her son to her husband, it would be "a death knell to her soul." Jacobs' warm, sympathetic verse develops all of his characters vividly so that you get to know their personalities, and you care about what happens to them.

From a legal standpoint, anyone who has tried a case sees his or her own reflection in the preparation, intuition and luck encountered in a trial, with the presentation of evidence; examination and cross-examination of witnesses; and objections, arguments and court rulings as the case proceeds through trial. For non-attorneys, it provides an entertaining and informative insight into how attorneys prepare and try a complex case.

Aside from the legal and emotional aspects of litigation, the expert testimony in the case provides fascinating information about waves and their physical properties. It tells us that when the depth of the water is less than half the length of the wave, the wave becomes sharply pointed and refracts (bends) and changes from a smooth wave to a steep breaking one. Under certain circumstances, if two nearly identical waves wrap around a shallow bar and meet, they can create a destructive wave which can be twice the height and quadruple the force of an ordinary wave. It forms, breaks and disappears in seconds.

The Widow Wave is a book that is entertaining and thrilling to anyone who is involved in litigation or boating, or just wants a compelling read about human interest and an attorney's determination to defend the honor and integrity of a ship's captain lost at sea. This is a page-turner whose only fault is that it ends too soon.