Teams competing in the Volvo Ocean Race had to slalom their way around numerous fishing boats while approaching Hong Kong on the fourth leg of the journey, French sailor Franck Cammas told AFP, after a collision left one Chinese fisherman dead.
The gruelling 5,800-nautical mile stage from Melbourne, Australia to Hong Kong was won by local group Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag in a historic victory. But news that a rival team had crashed into a Chinese fishing boat cast a cloud over celebrations.
Nine people were rescued following the accident Saturday, which tore a hole in the side of the American-Danish team's boat, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, and sank the fishing vessel.
Hong Kong police said a 50-year-old man from China who was in charge of the fishing boat was airlifted to hospital but pronounced dead on arrival.
All Vestas crew members were safe but the incident forced the team to officially retire from the fourth leg.
Franck Cammas, one of France's most successful sailors who was with China's Dongfeng Race Team, said they were attempting to catch up with the second-placed Vestas when the accident happened.
He said there was always a risk of collision on approach to the coast but a high number of boats in the water made the final stretch particularly challenging.
"We were in the middle of countless fishing boats. There were two areas previously that were just as dense. This was the last area before we got to Hong Kong," the 45-year-old, who skippered the winning Groupama IV in the 2011-2012 race, told AFP.
He added that these kinds of accidents were "extremely rare" because vessels usually have equipment on board to help spot other boats.
"We had to slalom a little bit... We were almost at the boat's maximum speed, around 20 knots, with boats where everyone is concentrating on controlling the sails, with a lot of water in your face too, so it's going fast, and there's a lot of noise."
The teams were also exhausted after battling the seas for more than two weeks, he said.
When a mayday call was issued, Dongfeng immediately offered assistance to the American-Danish team but were told their help was not needed.
Dongfeng's French skipper Charles Caudrelier was quoted just minutes after finishing as saying conditions had been dangerous.
"It is always very dangerous when sailing in these fishing areas when there are so many boats and some have no lights," he said, according to the race website.
- 'Deeply saddened' -
The Volvo Ocean Race is one of the world's toughest sailing events.
The 2017-18 edition is the longest in the competition's 44-year history, stretching over eight months and 45,000 nautical miles around the globe. The event ends in The Hague in the Netherlands in late June.
It is the first time Hong Kong has hosted part of the race, and teams had the navigational challenge of dodging numerous islands on their journey north from Melbourne.
Race director Phil Lawrence said it remained unclear what caused the collision but there were questions around whether the fishing boat was showing navigation lights or using equipment to detect other vessels.
"We don't have answers to those questions yet but of course those are central question(s) to the ongoing investigation," he said.
Initial reports said the nine rescued were in good condition, he added, but the Vestas crew were "very shaken and deeply saddened by the incident".
Hong Kong police said an investigation was underway.