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When Old Boats Need a Friend

Along the Chesapeake, a fellow they call Bunny stays busy as a rabbit

The stately, down-on-its-luck vessel of vintage stock is badly in need of Bunny.
    Like people, every boat has its story. The plight of this ’41 Chris Craft Sedan Cruiser begins when its owner dies “down South somewhere.”
    She’s cast out of her covered shed, homeless. Somebody with an eye for elegant lines takes pity.
    A Washington lawyer has her, but soon the old boat, nameless now, belongs to somebody in Boston. Restoration has started. But along the way, somebody throws up their hands.
    Who you gonna call?
    The Bunny, of course, as in Robert ‘Bunny’ Joyce.
    “She’s in rough shape right now,” Joyce says, tracing his fingers along the hull of the Chris Craft’s rub rail like a physician feeling for fractures.
    “But she’ll be okay,” he adds.
    The old Chris Craft is among many boats that come the way of Joyce, who lives in Annapolis and operates out of Cove Point Marina in Deale.
    Joyce is approaching the age of this old vessel. Yet he’ll take on multiple repairs and restorations simultaneously, both wood and fiberglass.
    He might be replacing a deck, a transom or rebuilding a whole cabin for charterboat captains from Annapolis to Solomons.
    “I’ll put a deck on a charterboat, and next thing you know, you’re doing five more decks,” he says.
    Outside his shop is a hulking trawler, a Marine Trader that he rebuilt from the deck up.
    Joyce has crafted entire vessels, 44 feet and 40 feet in length. Also a skiff or two.
    Wayne Adolph, of Deale, points approvingly at the transom and new superstructure on his charterboat, Sandra Lee.
    It’s Joyce’s work.
    “He’s reasonable and he knows what he’s doing,” Adolph says.

Truths of the Trade
    Joyce is a throwback to the days when every port and boatyard had people with the know-how to keep fleets of wooden vessels afloat if not gleaming.
    But, as the soft-spoken Joyce observes, “Most of those old guys are gone.”
    Joyce, 67, is approaching 50 years of boat work and, as he often points out, he still loves it.
    He’s an engaging sort, a man who speaks with his eyes and his smile as much as with words.
    An uncle began calling him Bunny as a kid. Joyce doesn’t know why. But he’s always gone by it.
    He started as an apprentice in Shady Side and recalls working “for the longest kind of time” at Anchor Yacht Basin.
    Joyce survived some harrowing moments: Once a 31-foot Bertram slipped out its travel lift, opened up his head and came darn near to terminating his career. And him.
    He tore up his left knee squirming up out of a bilge. He was badly hurt in a way people who work skill-saws imagine with terror: The saw jumped onto the meat of his leg. Quickly Joyce saw blood. Before long, he was back at work.
    “He’s a laid-back guy,” Adolph adds. “But if he doesn’t like you, you can’t get anything out of him.”
    When you can, there’s always the chance he’ll tell you what you don’t want to hear.
    People bring him projects they can’t figure out how to finish.
    “A lot of time, you do a job where people have torn it up. You have to scratch your head and figure out how to put it all back together,” he says.
    Would-be restorers might use the wrong kind of mahogany. Or the wrong shade, as he observed with somebody else’s transom repair.
    A proud owner will point to what he thinks is a modest repair. But Joyce will spot more rotting wood.
    In his shed, amid piles of sawdust and remnants of sliced-away wood, the ’41 Chris Craft is getting its makeover from the deck up.
    “I had to take everything out and replace it,” he says.
    It’s more than a little tricky, given that this boat has roll-up side windows, like your grandmother’s Plymouth.
    The old Philippine mahogany will be replaced with Honduran mahogany. At the specialty wood yard, they know Joyce well.
    A month goes by, and Joyce has progressed. There was intervening business, as is often the case: The rudder board on a Chesapeake Beach charter captain’s Bay-built had rotted, which eventually means a hole smack in the bottom of the boat.
    Joyce had just days until bookings demanded the boat be in the water; now is when charterboats are making their money. As Joyce describes how he made the repair, the captain is out trolling.

Putting on the Shine
    Joyce has just put the ninth coat of varnish on the Chris Craft’s transom. It shines like the reading room in an English gentlemen’s club.
    After rebuilding the entire upper structure, he put a fiberglass top where canvas over fir had been. Not stock, but whatever the future holds for this vessel, she’ll be wearing a spiffy, sealed hat for protection.
    Next, it will be time for six or so coats of varnish on the new mahogany exterior. The Honduran mahogany is not as deeply grained, he explains, so it won’t need as many coats as the Philippine hardwood.
    This is the part of the job he relishes. He likes it all, he says, but he allows that all the sanding can get to him.
    By the end of October, this old beauty will be just that and on a truck to Massachusetts.
    But outside, there’s an old sailboat in need of ministrations. He’ll get to it soon.
    What about his own boat?
    Joyce shoots a glance like the questioner is crazy.
    He’s around boats every day. Saturdays, too. People want him in their boats all the time. The other day, a charter captain he’d fixed up took him fishing.
    All around the transom he’d replaced, big stripers were swimming like fish in a koi pond.
    Joyce smiles: “What do I need a boat for?”