Bo Knows Boats

His education included one heck of a learning curve

Published in 2020 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine

Bo Sweeney has always had a thing for projects. Growing up, he helped his dad do stuff around the house. In law school, he worked as a carpenter. And since becoming a lawyer, he’s built two standing desks for his office and a tree house for his son. 

Just one problem—he started to run out of things to build.

“That led me to the boat,” Sweeney says.

If that sounds like a giant leap, Sweeney says it was a mastery of small things that helped get his boat in the Virginia waters. 

“Boats are basically 1,000 little steps: You take one step, and then you wait for the next part of the process,” Sweeney says. “You put on a coat of paint, and it’s got to dry for a couple of days, and then you sand it off and put on another one. There are a lot of time factors involved.”

In 2009, he took step one. His first build was a 14.5-foot long rowboat based on a design he found in WoodenBoat magazine that he aptly named Learning Curve. It took three years to build.

Learning Curve consists of sides of pine, a cypress bottom and oak for the structural elements. Early on, Sweeney realized the tools he had on hand from previous projects weren’t going to float. “You can’t build a boat with a circular saw; it’s not nuanced enough,” he says. “There was as huge a learning curve, in terms of using and keeping the tools necessary to get the thing built, as there was to actually building it.”

In 2015, Sweeney started his next and current project, a 15-foot-long Goat Island Skiff designed by an Australian naval architect, composed of marine plywood. But partway through, he had to put the build on hold. His garage floor, where he was working, was sloped and throwing off his angles. “I would try to build furniture and it’d all be crooked because the floor’s crooked,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can’t work like this anymore.’ So I stopped everything and converted the garage into a shop so I had a level floor.” He finished the workshop in 2017.

Sweeney says this boat has been easier to put together because the slabs are larger, lighter and more flexible. He estimates the as-yet-unnamed skiff will weigh 150 pounds, half the weight of his first build.

But this, too, came with a learning curve. While he was measuring for the seat, he kept referencing pictures of other boats online and wondering, “Why is there so little space between the back of the daggerboard case and the seat?” Eventually it hit him: He put in the case for the daggerboard—a vertical board that can be pulled up through the hull—backward. 

“I got ahold of the naval architect in Australia and said, ‘Look, is this going to be a problem?’ And he said, ‘Well, yeah. The boat won’t handle right.’” It took a month before Sweeney was able to correct it. 

He hopes to have it in the water this spring—an attainable goal, considering he’s currently wrapping up the hull, which just leaves sanding, applying a coat of epoxy, attaching runners, painting and varnishing. 

“There’s a saying among boat builders that a house carpenter builds to the nearest eighth of an inch, a cabinet maker builds to the nearest 16th, and a boat builder builds to the nearest boat,” Sweeney says with a laugh. 

The analogy is good for litigation, too. “Every case is different, and there are no precise measures that can be repeated from case to case and ensure a set result. The closest measure is previous cases, which will be different from the current case. They may look alike, and the steps to completion may be similar, but each will be unique.”

People like to ask Sweeney why he chooses to build when he could buy. “It’s as much about the process as it is the end result,” he says. 

It’s also a nice change from the day job. As a litigator, he says, “a lot of times you don’t get closure. You’ll work a case for a while and then it settles; you never really get to some resolution. With building a boat, it’s starting and finishing—seeing a completed product at the end.”  

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