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Friends mourn sailor's death in 'tragic accident'

Groton - As an avid sailor, Donald "Donzo" Wilkinson of Noank raced hard and had an infectious laugh.

At 54, he had decades of experience on the water and had captained private yachts and sailboats.

"Not only did he understand the wind and the waves and the tide and the weather, he understood how boats were built and what made them go fast," said Greg Gilmartin, racing committee chairman for the Mystic River Mudhead Sailing Association.

But all of Wilkinson's experience did not prevent what happened during a sailboat race in Fishers Island Sound Saturday afternoon.

Wilkinson was aboard the 30-foot sailboat One More Time when he was struck on top of his head by the boat's boom. It knocked him unconscious.

A fellow crew member among the half dozen on board the Mumm 30 performed CPR on Wilkinson until emergency personnel arrived, according to his father-in-law, George Hohenstein. Wilkinson was brought to shore and then to Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London where he died. An autopsy is scheduled to be performed by the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner.

"He died doing what he loved and it was just a tragic accident," Hohenstein said Sunday. "To all of us that sail, we are aware that could happen at anytime."

Wilkinson was the husband of Anne Hohenstein Wilkinson and the father of Ben and Sarah Wilkinson.

Because of Saturday's windy conditions, a small craft advisory was issued and the race was held inside of more protected Fishers Island Sound instead of going around the island.

Another sailboat participating in the race ran aground on South Dumpling Island and was badly damaged. Its crew was rescued by two men aboard a boat watching the race. There were no injuries in that incident.

But Hohenstein said the conditions had nothing to do with Wilkinson's death.

"There was nothing wrong with being out there yesterday for an experienced sailor or boats. There was nothing unusual about the day," Hohenstein said.

Described by Hohenstein as a "lifetime sailor," Wilkinson was not an amateur.

He was the founding commodore for the Mystic River Mudhead Sailing Association, serving from 1979-1980 and again from 1999-2001. He also served on the Board of Managers from 1981-1983.

Gilmartin called Wilkinson the "heart and soul of the Mudhead organization."

He was a graduate of Fitch High School in Groton and for the past 10 years has owned Northeast Storm Protection, a company specializing in products designed to protect and limit damage to window and door openings caused by high winds, water and flying debris.

The flag outside the Wilkinson's Harbor Court home flew at half staff Sunday while friends and family members gathered to console one another.

Among them was friend and neighbor Peter Bergendahl.

Twenty years ago, their friendship began competitively as they sailed against each other in regattas stretching from Newport, R.I., to Key West, Fla.

"He was the most competent person on a boat I've had the pleasure of sailing with," Bergendahl said. "We spend a lot of time together other than sailing. It's quite a loss."

A celebration of Wilkinson's life will be held Saturday at the Mystic Congregational Church.

The family is asking those planning to attend to wear flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts because he was "most-comfortable in that," Gilmartin said.

"He had an infectious laugh, he was full of life and he enjoyed it," Gilmartin said. "The way he laughed was just a part of it."

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