Search is ongoing in the South China Sea amid strong gales for 74 people missing after three fishing boats have sunk since Sunday afternoon due to the Typhoon Wutip, the 21st of the season.

The boats, all from south China's Guangdong Province with 88 fishermen aboard, were lost on Sunday afternoon near Shanhu Island of the Xisha Islands, about 330 km from China's island province of Hainan, sources with the Hainan maritime search and rescue center said.

As of Monday noon, rescuers had retrieved 14 survivors, the sources said.

Four injured fishermen taking refuge at Chenhang Island were sent to Sansha Municipal People's Hospital for treatment via helicopter on Monday afternoon.

"Strong gales will continue to hit the region, which will cause big trouble for the rescue," said Wang Qingyan, an official with the Hainan provincial marine forecast center.

Waves as high as four meters were monitored on Monday morning in the Xisha Islands, which hampered the rescue efforts of ships and helicopters, said Wang.

"Rescue ships that cannot resist strong gales cannot go to sea," said Wang. "Big waves prevent rescue ships from approaching and pose great risks for the ships."

The Chinese Navy's Nanhai Fleet has sent 7 warships, a helicopter and ten rescue teams to search the waters around the scene of the accident. Currently, a total of 277 fishermen trapped in the typhoon have been sheltered by the army at Chenhang Island as of Monday evening.

Two helicopters from Hong Kong also took part in the rescue but had yet to find any survivors, according to the Hong Kong Government Flying Services on Monday afternoon.

Altogether five fishing boats with a total of 171 people aboard were caught in Typhoon Wutip, according to the Hainan Maritime Search and Rescue Center.

Four ships were confirmed to be from Taishan City, under the administration of Jiangmen City in Guangdong Province. The other ship was from Hong Kong, according to the Jiangmen municipal government and the Hainan Maritime Search and Rescue Center.

Two ships, the "Yuetaiyu 62116" and the "62150," sank at about 7:20 p.m. on Sunday, according to a statement from the Jiangmen municipal government.

The third ship, "Yuetaiyu 62108," sank at 9:20 a.m. on Monday. One fisherman on board the ship swam to Yagong Island and reported the accident. The other 27 people aboard the ship are still missing, according to a Guangdong provincial emergency response office statement on Monday afternoon.

The fourth ship, "Yuetaiyu 61008," had lost power but was operational again at 11:30 a.m. on Monday and is heading to the scene of the accident for rescue, according to the statement.

Fishermen on the Hong Kong ship were safe, according to the Hainan maritime search and rescue center.

Chinese President Xi Jinping urged local authorities to do their utmost to find the missing or stranded and minimize casualties.

Xi also ordered the armed forces and central government departments to help in the rescue.

Premier Li Keqiang asked local authorities to ensure the safety of rescue personnel.

Efforts should be made to investigate potential safety risks brought by Wutip, relocate personnel threatened by the typhoon, and help fishing boats return to harbors safely, Li said.

As of Monday noon, 52 ships had been sheltered in waters close to the islands of Chenhang and Shanhu. Affected fishermen were taken care of by soldiers stationed at Xisha Islands.

An aircraft was sent by the Ministry of Transport at 10:39 a.m. for the rescue operation.

Meanwhile, the government of Sansha City had mobilized 350 local island residents and soldiers as well as nearby ships to participate in the search and rescue efforts.

The Hainan provincial government has dispatched six planes and 10 ships to the site of the accident. Three planes and two ships arrived at the scene by Monday noon.

China's maritime authority on Sunday upgraded its wave warning from yellow to orange, the second-highest of a four-tier color-coded weather warning system, as the typhoon approached land.

The National Marine Environmental Forecasting Center warned of storm tides from Sunday to Monday in Guangdong, Hainan and Guangxi.

Wutip is expected to make landfall on Vietnam's central coast on Tuesday. 

Chen Songyin, captain of the Yuetaiyu 61008, told Xinhua by phone on Monday evening that the fishermen should have chosen Chenhang Island for shelter instead of Shanhu Island.

"Chenhang Island is the best place to avoid gales in the Xisha Islands, but there were too many fishing boats there," said Chen, who is currently at Chenhang Island.

According to Chen's experience, Shanhu Island would be able to withstand a moderate typhoon, but Typhoon Wutip was too strong.

"It was too late to leave at that time," he said.

Waves were as big as tornadoes at about 2 p.m. on Sunday and visibility was less than 10 meters. A TV antenna and a satellite telephone on the ship were both destroyed by the typhoon, he said.

Three fishing boats sank one after another. Chen organized staff on the other two boats to rescue fishermen who had fallen into the water.

They were able to save ten people, and soldiers at Shanhu Island saved another three.

Fishermen underestimated the impact of the typhoon, which contributed to the accident, according to sources with the government of Sansha City.

The fishermen had already received typhoon warnings since Friday but did not go ashore. Instead, they placed their ships in a lagoon south of Shanhu Island to avoid gales, but the typhoon overturned their boats.

"Fishing authorities had issued warnings to those ships through the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, but the fishermen underestimated the typhoon," said Yang Jingye, deputy head of the Taishan municipal marine and fishing bureau.

Although the fishing boats had dropped their anchors, the gales were too fierce and overturned the ships, said Yang.

The only sound harbor in the area for avoiding strong gales is Chenhang Island, but ships there were also damaged or stranded, showing the power of the typhoon, said Fu Lashuai, head of the fishing affairs administration station of Qionghai City, a coastal city in Hainan Province.

"Fishing boats from other provinces may not be familiar with the waters around Xisha Islands," said Fu. 



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