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by Peter Tarr
Rod MacKinnon and Clay Armstrong, colleagues for 20 years, may know a lot about electrochemical signaling, but this past summer the two were reminded of a fundamental fact about the sea—one that they admit to overlooking in a moment of friendly competitive zeal.
Early on a Sunday morning last June, the two set off in kayaks from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to enjoy a day of physical exertion in waters they both have come to love. MacKinnon, an HHMI investigator and Nobel laureate at Rockefeller University, spent his youth in coastal Massachusetts, and over the last three years has accomplished more as a “paddler”—venturing miles out upon the swelling seas, beyond sight of land—than most kayakers ever attempt.
Armstrong, emeritus professor of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-winner (with MacKinnon and Bertil Hille) of a Lasker Award, has summered for years at Woods Hole. In his early 70s, he still runs marathons and is an accomplished sailor. Nevertheless, that Sunday morning marked only the second time he had ever stepped into a kayak.
They planned to paddle 30 miles over the Vineyard Sound—which separates Martha's Vineyard from Cape Cod—to Cuttyhunk Island, the westernmost in a chain called the Elizabeth Islands. Much to their delight, says Armstrong, that bright Sunday morning “a 10-knot wind and an ebbing tide were at our backs.” Remarkably, they reached Cuttyhunk in only three hours. After lunch they would ride the flood tide back to Woods Hole, or so they thought.
“Now we had that good wind against us,” McKinnon recalls, and passage was getting increasingly difficult as the hours passed.
“We'd been going about five miles, right into the teeth of the wind and waves,” MacKinnon remembers. “Then, suddenly, over Clay went, upside down and under water. I expected he'd pop right up beside the kayak, but he remained upside down, trying to figure out how to do an Eskimo roll—just kind of deducing it himself!” (In this classic maneuver of the sport the submerged kayaker, from an inverted position, rolls right-side up, powered by a quick flick of the hip and screw-like sweep of the paddle.)
Illustration: Peter Arkle