It’s expected to be a waterfront spectacle as defunct seafood restaurant is towed from its long-time home
Almost every day this week, “Captain” John Letnik has made a heart-wrenching pilgrimage to the foot of Yonge St. to watch his life’s work being dismantled, bit by rusting bit.
The iconic Captain John’s Seafood Harbour Boat Restaurant sign that stood for decades on the aged bow of the waterfront landmark, the Jadran, was lifted down by crane on Wednesday.
The gangplank that used to welcome businessmen and, later, busloads of tourists onto the former
Mediterranean cruise ship is now gone. So are the twin anchors of the 90-metre ship.
Even the tattered Canadian flag has been removed from the upper deck and replaced with a snappy new flying ad for Marine Recycling Corporation, the Port Colborne ship scrapping company that will guide the Jadran to its final resting place starting next Tuesday morning — weather, wind and waves permitting.
“People say to me, ‘How can you take it?’ But the ship and the restaurant were part of me. I invested my life inside that ship,” says Letnik, 76.
One thing remains connected and, strangely, still working — the restaurant’s reservations line. It dates back to 1976 when the city’s first floating restaurant, on what was then a desolate stretch of Toronto waterfront, threw open its doors on what was considered, at the time, a fine-dining experience.
“People are still calling, leaving messages,” says Letnik. “Some are saying the foot of Yonge St. won’t look the same without Captain John’s. Others are saying it’s time for Captain John’s to go.
“I guess I’m going to have to have that removed.”
So much of the ship — and its long history — is already gone.
Letnik has spent the last three years, since public health officials shut off water to the ship and civic officials shut down the business over unpaid back taxes and other fees, slowly removing anything of value.
Sadly, that’s included most of the brass fittings and elaborately carved wood panels that have graced the former luxury cruiser since it was first built in the former Yugoslavia back in 1957. It would later go on to become the private ocean-going getaway for former president Josip Broz Tito and his entourage.
When Letnik bought the ship back in 1975 for $875,000 (U.S.), it came with a statue of Tito, as well as fine linens and bedding in its 355 guest cabins. Letnik donated all of it to Adriatic-based shipping company Jadrolinija Rijeka as part of the deal.
It took more than 15 days and a crew of 16 to navigate the ship across the North Atlantic from Pula, Yugoslavia to Toronto.
“It was quite stormy. For three days we spent more time under the water than on top of it,” said Letnik. “She would pitch 45 degrees and then roll.”
When they finally arrived in Toronto in November of 1975, a crowd of 150 civic officials and curious onlookers were there to greet the ship as it eased into the Queen’s Quay slip where it would become a pioneering attraction on a waterfront that, back then, had little else to offer.
Letnik would spend some $3 million installing insulation, new wiring and a new kitchen where he would man the decks on a dream that thrived through the 80s but crashed onto the rocks during the 1990s recession.
Until the downturn, a sizable list of the Who’s Who of Toronto’s business elite had their own tables and would make the ship a regular stop for Letnik’s trademark clam chowder or drinks on the deck.
The CHIN bikini contest got its start there in 1976 before outgrowing Captain John’s two years later and heading for Toronto Island. The novel floating restaurant — which offered one of the best views of the city next to the recently opened CN Tower — was the unique go-to place for bar mitzvah’s, Christmas parties, visiting relatives.
Letnik’s daughter, Denise, got married on the ship in 1994, as did many other couples over the years.
As late as a week ago, when Letnik did a final, nostalgic and teary-eyed walk around the Jadran’s battered and duct-taped decks, the thank you note and picture from Dan and Anna Sprague’s September 3, 2006 wedding remained tacked on the wall of his dishevelled office.
“Our wish to be married on the deck came true!”
Even as debts mounted, Letnik struggled to keep the business going: At last count, he owes well over $1.7 million in realty taxes, berthing fees and mortgages.
Much of the history of the Jadran — from brass lights to massive rope cleats — now sits on the lawn of a low-rise Scarborough apartment building that Letnik still owns. He’s now living in a basement unit after years in the top deck Captain’s Quarters of the Jadran.
Letnik’s last hope is that Marine Recycling will honour its promise to reserve a spot for him on the ship as it makes its final journey.
“It’s not going to be easy leaving the ship in Port Colborne. But I understand that its time is up.”
Source: the star.