You couldn't ignore the wake-up call. Early each morning, a motorized winch would hum to life and begin reeling in hundreds of feet of heavy anchor chain as the crew prepared to set sail for another island. Lying in my cabin below, the clamor sounded like Jacob Marley was doing the rumba on deck, with his fellow damned joining in.
That was my cue to stumble upstairs into the brilliant Caribbean sunshine. I was island-hopping the British Virgins aboard the world's largest sailing trimaran, the Cuan Law, Scottish Gaelic for sea mountain. Sixteen guys had boarded the three-pontoon ship--105 feet long, 43 feet wide, with 10 air-conditioned cabins, a spacious main saloon, a 21-seat video room and a crew of seven--for four days of sun, sail, scuba and snorkeling.
Although the trip began with 18 men, we had two casualties before we even left the island of Tortola. We had arrived in the Virgin Islands on April 14, Black Friday, when the NASDAQ and Dow went into free-fall. Two stockbrokers who began the trip with us spent the day frantically fielding calls on their cell phones, and spent that night drowning their sorrows in a local bar. They caught the first plane back to New York in the morning. Those who remained were a diverse group--there was a TV weatherman from Cleveland, an entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles, a large-animal veterinarian (cows, sheep, etc.) from England, an accountant from Manhattan, a defense lawyer from Connecticut and a Marine turned cop turned FBI agent turned Florida law-school student.
What brought this group together was friendship with Bill O'Reilly, the executive producer and anchor of "The O'Reilly Factor," a nightly talk show on the Fox News Channel. All of these men had crossed paths with O'Reilly at some point in their lives, some as early as a shared childhood in Levittown, Long Island, during the Eisenhower administration.
"I go back with O'Reilly to first grade," says John Blasi, a consulting firm owner from New Jersey. "The vacations are a natural extension of our childhood routine. I would come home from school and call O'Reilly to see what game he had pulled together and where we were to meet."
The games have only gotten bigger. Over the years, their trips have ranged from rafting Oregon's Rogue and Idaho's Snake rivers to heli-hiking the Na Pali coast of Kauai, Hawaii. O'Reilly has been organizing such trips since the 1970s. The cast of characters has changed over the years, with some missing a few trips and then popping back in again, but always, everyone on the trips was a friend of O'Reilly.
Anyone who watches O'Reilly's talk show can glean a few basic traits about the man. He's smart, quick, opinionated, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. "I've known O'Reilly for 29 years. Success hasn't changed him. He's as much a pain in the ass today as he was back then," jokes Mike Dutko, a cop turned defense lawyer from Florida. "But he's brutally frank and fiercely loyal. He expects nothing less from his friends. He also believes that friendship requires effort and commitment." It's a loyalty that his friends return.
The combination makes for a comfortable camaraderie. "As a first-timer, it was the best and friendliest collection of oddballs I have ever hung with," says TV weatherman Shane Hollett. "No agendas other than B.S. and fun. That's probably due to Bill's selection process."
But camaraderie's just a part of the picture. For some of the guys, the trips are an opportunity to have adventures that would be too risky or, some would say, too dumb to have with their families. An example: on the island of Virgin Gorda, two members of our group (who will mercifully remain nameless) were exploring a maze of waterfront boulders in a section called The Baths. Within 20 minutes, they were hopelessly lost within the rocks. Rather than retrace their steps (ranked with asking for directions for most men) the two men--responsible and upstanding members of their communities--decided to swim underwater between the rocks towards the sound of the crashing surf, disregarding the obvious dangers of such a maneuver as well as the 20 pounds of added weight provided by the now-saturated beach towels tied around their waists. As one later noted, "We were extremely happy our wives were not present to witness our stupidity." What would have provided fodder for family gatherings until death do they part has instead become part of the O'Reilly Group legend.
For many of the group, it was the small moments that stand out: looking up at the full moon from 50 feet beneath the water's surface during a night dive; snorkeling among thousands of silver fish no bigger than a paper clip; passing the time under a palm tree with Norwell Durant, an elderly sea-salt harvester and the lone resident of Salt Island; standing in your dive suit on the ocean floor when all the fish around you suddenly disappear, leaving you to nervously wonder why (and learning later from fellow divers that a six-foot nurse shark had popped into the neighborhood); sharing phenomenal gourmet dinners prepared by chef Tanya Wohner on the Cuan Law aft deck; smoking Cuban Montecristos (bought from Cuan Law captain Gerry Matt's excellent humidor) and drinking ice cold Red Stripes at Foxy's beachfront bar on the island of Jost Van Dyke; watching from the ship as the sun sinks into the sea.
Late the last night, I stood alone on the deck, smoking a Bahia Gold as I watched the full moon chase the stars from the sky. The lights of the empty beach bars on Jost Van Dyke flickered in the distance. Everyone was asleep and all was quiet but for the lapping of the waves against the boat and the muted clanging of a buoy somewhere in the darkness. The salt of a warm sea breeze mingled with my cigar smoke.
I thought about the previous four days. It was my first trip with these guys, people whom, with the exception of O'Reilly, I had not met before. We had started as strangers and quickly became friends as they welcomed me into their tradition. Then it occurred to me. This trip wasn't about sailing or diving, or getting away from the job or family, or hitting the bars, or even just "being guys." This trip was about friends maintaining a link over decades--reconnecting with the men they once were, affirming who they are, and considering who they may become.