The S.S. Kali Yuga (UFO Roundup) • 6 January 2009

(Ghost Ship soundtrack)

The Editor rolled over in his sleep the other morning and said, Soy un naufrago. He’d been watching Shogun, the 1980s epic of cultural insensitivity about an Englishman shipwrecked amid samurai intrigue in 1600s Japan. But Naufraugios—shipwrecks—refers in to the West Indes. It’s what Cabeza de Vaca, the 1500s sailor who was after the fountain of youth, not Japanese trade, called his chronicle of mucking around Florida in a quasi-psychedelic daze. Anyway, shipwrecks, sailors, samurai intrigue. Since the Editor’s writing about South American history I guess his subconscious pulled the story closer to home, into the territory of Spanish rather than English plunder.

Me I’d been dreaming about iron cages, a recurring theme since I started reading Max Weber years ago. I tried to read Sivananda’s Self Knowledge on New Years but found it awfully disciplinarian. But before I put it down I felicitiously misread this line: “Even in this iron age (Kali Yuga), when the vast majority of persons run after women and money, there are earnest and sincere young men who want God and God alone.” Iron CAGE? Kali yuga? Sivananda said Kali Yuga’s an iron cage?

But I thought hyper-rationality was the iron cage? (This is what sociology has taught me all along.) Sivananda says Kali Yuga IR-rationality is the iron cage? Oh oh oh! Is everything the iron cage? Are Weber and Sivananda saying the same thing???? I woke up this morning at 4:40 and googled “iron cage kali yuga.” Yes, this is the kind of near-shipwrecked idiocy that wakes me up before dawn.

Duh. No such luck. Iron age (Sivananda) not same as iron cage (Weber). Pseudo-spiritual irrationality (Iron Age) not same as hyper-westernized rationalization (Iron Cage). But it was fun to think it all came together for a minute. The result list instantly revealed my error but in so doing brought everything right back to SHIPWRECKS! The first hit was this awesome song by the metal band Therion; second hit was the 2002 issue of UFO ROUNDUP.

Thus, I learned this beautiful story of The SS Kali Yuga, an ironsides ghost ship lost to Lake Huron in 1905. The clairvoyant Chippewa stood on the shore and bid it godspeed, as they did I think for the Edmund Fitzgerald. Maybe the iron age and iron cage are not so far apart.                                                            ………………………………………………………                               

The USA's five Great Lakes are famous for their ghost ships. Many are the vessels which have "sailed away" and vanished, never to be seen again.

The story begins in St. Clair, Michigan in the spring of 1889, as shipbuilders put the finishing touches on a brand-new wooden "oreboat" 270 feet (81 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide. Only three years earlier, the Merritt brothers had opened up the Mesabi "Iron Range" in northern Minnesota. Tons of high-grade iron ore were coming out of the mines and heading for the ports of Lake Superior. Ships were needed to ferry the ore to the steel mills in Buffalo, N.Y. and Cleveland, Ohio.

The hull was quickly sold to the Cleveland Cliffs fleet. Her new owners cast about for a suitable name. But nobody could think of one.

Then a member of the company's Board of Directors read an article about India in the Detroit Free Press. The article made mention of the Kali Yuga, a Hindi phrase which the newspaper translated as "the Age of Iron."

The Board thought this would be a fine name for an oreboat. So a champagne bottle was swung, and the newly-christened Kali Yuga slid down the ramp into Lake St. Clair for her shakedown cruise.

Trouble was, the ship's American owners misunderstood the meaning of the phrase Kali Yuga. They thought it referred to the Iron Range boom in the USA's Upper Midwest. In actuality, the phrase Kali Yuga refers to the last epoch in the Hindu cycle of world-ages.

In the Vishnu Purana, time is divided into four distinct world-ages. First comes the Satya Yuga or Golden Age, lasting the longest. Then the world enters the Treta Yuga, a less civilized and harmonious period, which is followed by the Dvapara Yuga, an age in which humankind has grown more violent and decadent still. Right before oblivion comes the fourth age, the Kali Yuga, which lasts for 400,000 years.  A better translation of the phrase Kali Yuga would be "the Age of Chaos."

The oreboat soon lived up to her name. Although no sailor ever died an accidental death aboard the Kali Yuga, the vessel experienced some weird paranormal phenomena.

While downbound on Lake Huron in August 1897, the Kali Yuga encountered an impenetrable fog. Crewmen taking a break on the Texas deck were startled by a sudden sound–the barking of a large and very angy dog. The barking and snarling, followed by a bone-chilling howl, sounded as if they were coming from the fog a short distance, no more than 100 feet (30 meters) away. But the Kali Yuga was in mid-lake at the time, at a point about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northeast of Presque Isle, Michigan.

In June 1899, crewman Bob Sandover had a most unnerving experience in a night fog on Lake Superior. While working alone on deck, Bob saw what he thought was a "double" of the Kali Yuga on the placid lake only 33 feet (10 meters) away. Through the roiling mists, the "other" deck looked identical to his, and his doppelganger mimicked his every motion.

Gripping the rail, Bob shouted, "Who are you? What are you doing out there?" The doppelganger stood erect slowly and faced him. Bob gasped. The "other" sailor was his identical double in every detail of facial feature and dress. The only difference was the double's eyes, which radiated an aura of menace.

By way of reply, the double squatted down and appeared to be writing something. Then he lifted a square piece of cardboard with a hastily-scrawled message on it: Get off that ship! The double's lips curved in a sinister smile. And then he and his Kali Yuga shimmered and vanished.

When the ship docked at Detroit, Bob Sandover promptly quit and found a berth on another Great Lakes steamer. Never again did he set foot on the Kali Yuga.

And there was another curious fact about the Kali Yuga. She could never keep to a schedule. Season after season, she invariably showed up late at her destination. Her owners appointed one captain after another, but the Kali Yuga never quite shed her reputation for a tardy arrival.

In 1900, Captain Fred L. Tonkin of Painesville, Ohio took the helm for the summer. This time, "the Kali Yuga was long overdue" but "she showed up all right. She had been caught in a gale o' wind and had lost her rudder."

And then came 1905, an ominous year in Great Lakes history, highlighted by "a gale of November" that sank dozens of ships and provided Duluth with her all-time most famous shipwreck, the Mataafa. So many ships went down in that gale that the final fate of the Kali Yuga has been virtually forgotten.

On October 19, 1905, the Kali Yuga pulled up to the iron ore docks in Marquette, Michigan, on Lake Superior's south shore. Once again, Fred Tonkin was her skipper, and her chief engineer was Charles A. Sharpe of Cleveland. There were 16 men aboard and one woman, the cook.

"The weather had been bad that fall. Lots of the older schooners and steam barges were wrecked that season…Nobody worried much, however, as she (the Kali Yuga) was one of the strongest and best wooden steamers on the lakes, and well-kept, too."

Early the next morning, October 20, 1905, the Kali Yuga weighed anchor and steamed away from the ore dock. As she sailed past Marquette's distinctive red brick lighthouse, Sharpe came to the pilothouse and pointed out an unusual sight to Captain Tonkin.

There, on the stony beach, stood a dozen Anishinabe men and women, all dressed as if for powwow in bead-worked black velveteen clothes and ceremonial headdresses. They all looked pretty grim as "the medicine chief (today we say spiritual advisor–J.T.) carried the eagle staff and chanted."

"Who are those Indians?" he asked. Captain Tonkin, who had often sailed the upper lakes, answered, "Chippewas. Here to see us off, I gather." (Editor's Comment: My guess is, the Anishinabe spiritual advisor had a vision of what was to come, and they went down to the shore to invoke "the One Above's" blessing on the doomed ship.)

There was a stiff wind, and the seas were high on Lake Superior. But the Kali Yuga reached Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan safely and passed through the Soo canal and entered Lake Huron.

"The skipper of the Frontenac told later of seeing her about four that afternoon some seven miles (11 kilometers) off Presque Isle Light in Lake Huron," not far from the scene of the "barking dog" incident. "The master of the L.C. Waldo also reported seeing her about dark (6:45 p.m.–J.T.) between Middle Island and Thunder Bay Island." A gale was blowing, "and it kicked up a terrific big sea."

Because of her reputation for tardiness, "no one was unduly alarmed when she didn't show up exactly on schedule…They figgered that maybe she put in for shelter somewhere along the east or north shores of Lake Huron."

"Her sister ships of the Cliffs fleet searched hard for her. Her owners sent out tugs after the wind let up to scour the lake for signs of her, but no good. They all came back with nothin' to say. No wreckage, no nothin'."

The Kali Yuga "was lost on Lake Huron in 1905 and never a trace of her was found…She didn't ever show up, and nobody ever knew where she went down, nor why."