It was a duel that raged from the moment they left their Emirati departure port back on January 3.

“I’m just looking at MAPFRE and Brunel,” said Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad as the two boats tore into the Sanya harbor earlier today.

“And I think there’s as much distance between them as when I last saw them – leaving Abu Dhabi.”

It’s incredible that two boats can test and tease each other for so long, and over a distance so big as 5,000 nm – and, although MAPFRE secured fourth place in this leg, the margin was slim.

1 minute 50 seconds, to be precise. A whisker-thin separation of these Spanish and Dutch boats.

“It’s been a pretty tough last two days,” said a relieved MAPFRE skipper Xabi Fernández, as his boat crossed the finish line at 0423 UTC.

“And the last 24 hours, Brunel has been one mile from us and always being a little quicker than us – we didn’t really know why.”

The Olympian is standing in as skipper for his old mate Iker Martínez, and after a slow start to this campaign, he’s delighted that his crew finally has something to shout about – their best finish yet.

“It’s a good feeling,” he smiles. “I think as a team we feeling that we did a good leg. We were in a tough position because we lost some miles, but then a big comeback.

“In the middle of the race we were in second position which was almost like being first because Dongfeng were gone from the very beginning – we had a bad day in the Malacca Strait and lost our position.”

He pauses. “In the end, we’ll take fourth.”

He knows Bouwe Bekking, the guy he has edged out today, well – after all, he sailed around the world with him on Téléfonica Blue back in 2008-9.

And although this was an intense fight, there are no hard feelings from the Dutchman.

“Well, we’re not having an expensive party at losing to MAPFRE, but we sailed a pretty good leg,” he says. His boat finished at 0425 UTC.

“We had a few issues from Singapore up the Vietnamese coast because we were lacking speed for some really strange reason. We sailed through a patch of heavy crude oil, and the whole boat was covered.

“We’ll have to see when we pull the boat out how bad the bottom is. We had bad moments, and good moments, as long as you can all look each other in the eye and do the next leg, then you still have a reason to smile.”

And their thoughts on the superiority of runaway leaders Dongfeng Race Team?

“It’s a strange thing about one-design,” shrugs Bouwe. “Sometimes for no reason someone goes really fast, and others go really slow.

“Dongfeng had an excellent leg. It’s great for sailing that they have won, great for china, congrats to them.

“But there are a lot of legs to go and they know that as well.”

For his part, Xabi agrees. “We were all together on Day 2 and then Dongfeng did really well. They took one mile, then three, four, five, and then they were gone.

“We had a few park ups but they were always some miles ahead. That’s all there is to say, hopefully we can have a leg like that in future.”