Douglas & McIntyre
One Hell of a Ride

Book details:

August 2008
ISBN 978-1-55365-363-9
6" x 9"
296 pages
16 b&w photographs
Biography & Autobiography / Biography
Business & Economics
$21.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

One Hell of a Ride

How Craig Dobbin Built the World's Largest Helicopter Company

Excerpt / Additional Content


The Introduction

For more than five hundred years ships from around the world have passed through the Narrows to the harbour at St. John’s, where they flushed their bilges, dumped their waste and, on many occasions, sank to the bottom.

In the spring of 1960, while slush along the gutters of Duckworth Street melted in the sun, Craig Laurence Dobbin fumbled his way through the cesspool waters of the harbour enclosed in a rubber suit and brass diving helmet. A belt of lead weights held him on the bottom as he moved through the wreckage of a ship sunk during the Second World War. The vessel’s steel hull had disintegrated into rust, but Dobbin was interested in the parts that had resisted the corrosive salt water—the ship’s bronze and brass fittings, driveshafts and propellers. Removing them with wrench, saw or torch and hauling them to the boat floating thirty feet above his head would bring a reasonable payday to Dobbin and his two partners, brother Dennis and friend Bob Lochart, in their company Aquasalvage Ltd.

The work was risky, but Dobbin discounted the danger. At least he was doing it for his own company, not for one of the foreign-owned corporations along Water Street where executives barked orders in clipped British accents or the flat nasal tones of Ontario-born stuffed shirts. Craig Dobbin would work for nobody but himself. Not for his father, and certainly not for some Brit or mainlander who considered Newfoundland an edge-of-the-world outpost.

On this day, however, the risk became reality. Two lines stretching down from the boat above his head got ensnarled in the wreck. The one that divers call their umbilical line fed his diving helmet with air. The other, a length of nylon rope, represented his means of communication with the boat. Pinched between metal sections of the hull, both lines were now unserviceable.

Dobbin began wrenching at the lines, blindly trying to free them in the dark water. They held fast, and the more he exerted himself, the less oxygen remained in his helmet. He could swim the distance up to the boat if he could remove the diving helmet and the weighted belt. But the helmet was tightly bolted to his suit, and the belt securely fastened. He would lose consciousness, he knew, long before he could free himself from the equipment.

Later, Dobbin would claim that he prepared himself to say goodbye. “I was ready for it,” he remembered. He could simply relax, drift first into unconsciousness and then death. By the time the men above him realized he was in trouble, he would be beyond rescue.

But the idea of dying in those filthy waters and, worse, never achieving the success as a businessman he had planned for himself was not acceptable. He would not wait passively for death. If he were to fade from life, he would fade while fighting for another breath. He resumed swinging the lines back and forth, applying his considerable strength in an attempt to free himself.

It worked. The lines released. Air began flowing into the helmet again. He breathed deeply and willed himself to grow calm. Then he tugged on the rope, signalling to be pulled out of the near-freezing water. The work day was over.

The three men piloted the boat to shore, walked to a nearby bar and consumed several pints of beer before heading for home. The following day Craig Dobbin pulled the diving suit on again and returned to the water in search of salvageable brass and bronze. For now, that was his work. But he was already searching for another career, and eventually he found it.

Like a dragonfly that spends its immature years in water, then emerges to soar though the air, Craig Dobbin rose from the harbour water to create the world’s largest helicopter company, a multi-billion-dollar corporation performing complex operations for governments and petroleum industry giants. Stubbornly insisting on remaining in St. John’s, he came to count presidents, prime ministers and royalty among his friends, and his antics and generosity became legendary far beyond Newfoundland.

Almost a half-century after his near-fatal dive, Craig Dobbin’s life ended with some irony, cut short partly by a disease that robbed him of air. His achievements—including an estate valued at half a billion dollars—left many who knew him shaking their heads at his triumphs and his audacity.

“No one could ever tell Craig Dobbin he would fail, or that he could fail,” a Dobbin business associate recalled. “His life is a lesson to everybody who chooses to go into business for themselves. The trouble is, to succeed at Craig Dobbin’s level you have to be Craig Dobbin. And we’ll never, in our lifetime, see anyone like him again.”