Coming in to port in Maine after sixty-three days of chasing mackerel in the North Atlantic, the Aurora, a 38-foot trawler flying the Finnish flag, went black. It fell out of radio contact, blanked on its GPS pings, and failed to transmit an automated emergency signal. The Coast Guard station at Boothbay Harbor presumed either sabotage or a rogue wave.
The search lasted twenty-nine days—ten days while the crew of the Aurora depleted its estimated reserves of drinking water, another fourteen days while they most likely died of dehydration, and an extra five days, just to be safe.
The Finnish company that licensed the Aurora held a service in Hanko at which the missing bodies of all six crew members were ceremonially buried at sea.
Twelve days later a retired California woman on a whale-watching trip in Camden, Maine, swung her binoculars to the east and spotted a 38-foot trawler in a dead float on the horizon. The boat leaned sharply in the water, a sedan-size hole blasted out of its hull, half its lifeboat dangling by a single rope.
A Coast Guard Search and Rescue team boarded the Aurora and found blood samples matching the DNA of five crew members smeared across the walls, the decks, and the doorways of the ship. Positive identification of the several limbs and vital organs was complicated by the prolonged exposure to the elements.
What happened to the Aurora might have remained a mystery if a newbie on the search and rescue team hadn’t wondered aloud why the Aurora was flying such an odd signal flag. In a trunk beneath the foremast he found a supply of withered rope, an engraved sextant, and more signal flags. Most of these were so threadbare and antique as to be almost unrecognizable. Some were patched and altered in places. But all abided by the traditional geometric patterns of red, yellow, blue, white, and black.
A full Coast Guard inquiry determined that the Aurora had tried to hail a lighthouse on Matinicus Island by hoisting its signal flags. With all electronic communication severed, the crew was unaware that the lighthouse on Matinicus Island had been decommissioned years ago, and was now being used as a monitoring post by a wildlife conservation group. No one saw their signal flags. But the monitoring post included a video camera mounted in the lantern room of the lighthouse. The Coast Guard requisitioned the video and shared it with a notorious old lobsterman from Rockland who could decipher the strange nautical flags. By a combination of obscure sea jargon and creative uses of fabric, the sequence of flags told the story of the wreck of the Aurora.
Flag: The last flag any sailor wants to see, a blue triangle over a yellow triangle.
Flag: A rare checkerboard of red and white.
Message: Pilot attempting to swim ashore in rough waters.
Flag: A slightly more rare checkerboard of red and blue.
Message: Please look for pilot’s body among the rocks.
Flag: A yellow cross on a blue field, an old standby.
Message: Out of drinking water and bored of porno mags.
Flag: A plain white field.
Message: Traditionally the flag of parley, but used in modern times as an open invitation to come aboard and play pinochle.
Flag: A hybrid stitched together on the Aurora, combining a red diamond and a white border on a blue field.
Message: Ship’s mate has done violence to the gaffer…
Flag: Diagonal stripes of blue and white.
Message: …with a soup tureen.
Flag: Ominous horizontal stripes of red and yellow.
Message: The captain would like to bequeath to his mother any of his possessions that are not currently in hock to a Bangkok whore.
Flag: An invented pattern of vertical black stripes and four red circles.
Message: What is it about a beautiful, distant shoreline that makes the presence of other men feel like hell?
Flag: A sinister a red cross, outlined in black stitches, on a red field.
Message: Never realized how great it feels to make a doomed man beg for his life.
Flag: A remarkably original design, featuring a double border of blue and black squares, embedded diamonds of yellow and red, and a subtle cross-hatch pattern of red anchors in the background.
Message: We were stranded here twenty-eight days ago, when the cook decided to boil some electric ray fish for supper. The resulting explosion ripped a hole in our ballast tank, short-circuited our communications, and possibly drove some of us insane.
Flag: The familiar black and yellow checkerboard.
Message: When we’re all dead, blame the cook.
After the Coast Guard released its report, the Finnish company held a second ceremony in Hanko, at which five of the six crew members were posthumously decorated with the Finnish medal of merit for service at sea—a gold cross suspended from a striped red and yellow ribbon.
If any good came of the disaster, surely it was the huge flag designed and sewn by the sea-wives of Hanko as a tribute to the crew of the Aurora. A bold work of craftsmanship, it employed the traditional symbols and colors of the nautical flags, canvas made of recycled sails, and yarn from the rope recovered on the Aurora. To those who could decipher its meaning, this massive quilt was a masterpiece and a treasure.
It said: We commit to the sea these brave sailors who caught many fish, discovered an uncharted island full of gold and buttered rum, climbed its highest peak in order to rescue a baby albatross from a race of predatory seals who walk upright on their back flippers, and were subsequently betrayed and murdered by the cook, whose immense amounts of back hair made him sympathetic to the hairy, upright seals, which is gross, and you should all shave your backs, even when you’re four months at sea. May they rest in peace.