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Death of experienced sailor from Snyder puzzles officials and family members

Sailing became a passion for the Gothgen family of Snyder, whose Danish roots afforded them much time to spend enjoying the seas.

That’s why the death late Tuesday afternoon of experienced sailor and physicist Christian Gothgen, 49, in the waters of Lake Ontario near Olcott Harbor puzzled family members and investigators from the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.

“He was the careful guy,” said Dr. Niels Gothgen, 47. “I’m the one who would go out in ridiculously unsafe water and do it readily. My brother would be careful. He would watch. He would pay attention. He was methodical, which is why this really is not like him.”

Gothgen was operating a Laser – a high-performance single-man sailboat – when it flipped over and struck him, said Petty Officer Jason Yonk of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Niagara.

The Sheriff’s Office had received multiple 911 calls from onlookers reporting an overturned boat just west of Olcott Harbor.

First on the scene were members of the Olcott Volunteer Fire Department, who discovered Gothgen unresponsive in the water at 4:12 p.m. He was wearing a life vest.

Moments earlier, a witness reported hearing Gothgen yelling for help, said Sgt. Ronald Steen of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.

“I don’t understand it,” said Steen. “Usually when we have a drowning with somebody with a life vest on it’s because they had hit their head and fell in the water.”

The Olcott firefighters attempted to revive Gothgen, who apparently was tossed from the craft, struck by it and then hit a shoal, Yonk reported.

Gothgen was transported to Eastern Niagara Hospital in Newfane, where he was pronounced dead.

The Marine Division and Criminal Investigation Bureau of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office are investigating.

Results of an autopsy scheduled for Wednesday morning were not immediately available.

At the time of the accident, Coast Guard officers reported northeast winds from 18 to 21 mph. Small craft advisories are normally issued when winds exceed 25 mph.

“It depends on which way the winds were coming from. A lot of time the winds lead to rough seas in the area of Olcott Harbor,” Steen noted. “Winds coming from the north have a long way to build up waves.”

Tuesday afternoon’s northeast winds whipped the waves to heights of between two and three feet, deputies reported.

“For someone who was experienced with Olcott Harbor, the conditions seem like they would have been fine,” said Steen.

Niels Gothgen recalled sailing with his brother regularly over the years.

“We sailed everything from the North Sea in pretty scary weather to down at Lake Chautauqua at summer camp,” Niels Gothgen said. “We used to sail Lake Erie. Sailing was good, quiet fun for him, one of those things in our background that he enjoyed. We had a two-man boat during our late teens and early 20s. It was a real good bonding experience.”

Gothgen was the oldest of three sons raised by retired neurologist Dr. Svend Gothgen and his wife, Alice, who moved to Buffalo in 1978.

“My father came to the U.S. for his residency in Madison, Wis.” said Niels Gothgen. “The idea was to do the residency and go back to Denmark, but he got an offer from Buffalo. Buffalo has a way of drawing you in so you never want to leave. It grows on you like moss.”

Niels Gothgen also decided to return to Buffalo after completing his residency and fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine.

Today he specializes in acute and critical care and hospice medicine at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

Niels Gothgen, his wife and daughter live in Eggertsville. Peter Gothgen, 32, is a teacher who lives in Amherst.

Christian Gothgen had lived in his parent’s Snyder home and helped them care for the property.

He was employed as a driver for Buffalo Pharmacies, according to Niels Gothgen.

In 2010, Gothgen earned a doctorate in physics from the University at Buffalo. His special interest was in spintronics, a type of circuit design that uses lasers.

“The degrees he has are pretty esoteric,” said Niels Gothgen. “It’s tough for him to find a position. At one point he was supposed to go to Hawaii to conduct research there. He actually just interviewed in Rochester.”

Hong Luo, professor and chairman of the UB physics department remembered Christian Gothgen as a very good student who attended department picnics and participated in social hours on campus.

“Usually when students graduate, that’s the last you see of them on a regular basis, but Christian came back to attend seminars and lectures,” said Luo.

“We have a lot of students whose parents are medical doctors,” observed Luo. “And many of the parents want their children to go to medical school, but some can not resist the appeal of physics. Christian was probably more outspoken than many of the students.”

“Sailing was a passion in the Gothgen family, and it was in his blood percolating,” said Niels Gothgen. “For him it was important, something he was happy to be returning to.”

Funeral arrangements have not been completed.