Bookmonger: Courtroom drama tackles tragedy at sea

Jay W. Jacobs sailed in the merchant marine before he ever became a member of the California bar. As a young lawyer, he found that his years spent at sea were helpful in handling cases that involved maritime law. But it wasn’t until he was in mid-career that a particularly confounding tragedy involving a recreational fishing trip came along and not only defined the rest of his career but continued to haunt him long after the verdict was delivered.

Jacobs, now living on Whidbey Island, has written about that case and the resulting, real-life courtroom drama in his new book, “The Widow Wave.” You may want to strap on a life vest before you read this book.

The lethal incident had occurred outside the entrance to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, in treacherous waters with a history of shipwrecks and hundreds of lives lost. But in the case of the Aloha, a 34-foot recreational fishing vessel with five people aboard, no living person knew what actually happened because the boat simply vanished, and there had been no eyewitnesses. The men lost at sea included the boat owner Francis Dowd, his teenaged son, his brother-in-law, and two business colleagues. Dowd left behind his wife Janet and four other children.

One of the missing men and apparent drowning victims, H. Tho Ang, was a Chinese national who had made a successful life for himself in the Philippines. The family he left behind, a wife and five children, sued Dowd’s estate for damages due to negligence.

Janet Dowd hired Jacobs to represent her interests in the case. He learns that he will be going up against the principal of a hugely successful plaintiffs’ law firm in San Francisco that has a reputation for winning million-dollar verdicts for his clients.

Nevertheless, under Janet’s direction, Jacobs declines to settle the case before it goes to trial. The widow had never known her husband to be careless, and she refuses to believe that he had been negligent. She is determined to clear his name.

“The Widow Wave” is a procedural that takes readers through the preliminary investigations of the insurance company, the accident report by the Coast Guard, and the fact-finding into maritime observational technologies and other pertinent subjects as Jacobs assembles witnesses, prepares his case, and takes it to court.

In the courtroom, a successful lawyer needs to be well prepared and quick-witted. He or she needs to have the performing chops of a thespian, the teaching savvy of an educator, the acute diagnostic skills of a psychoanalyst, and the technological aptitude of a scientist. In short, lawyers must have big egos, and Jacobs displays that in spades – he positively gloats when he traps his courtroom opponents in an occasional bad move.

But this high-stakes trial plays both ways, and Jacobs also reveals his own doubts and mistakes along the way.

This is an engrossing true story about the honor, hubris, and intellectual affray that typifies the American justice system. I recommend it.


“The Widow Wave,” by Jay W. Jacobs

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com