AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Spanish team MAPFRE, skippered by stand-in Xabi Fernandez, claimed an epic victory in the fourth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race with just over four minutes to spare after 20 days sailing.
Fernandez's crew pipped Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to victory in Auckland, after a 5,264-nautical mile (nm) stage from Sanya, China, to snatch their first leg victory since the race started on Oct. 11.
There was consolation, however, for Abu Dhabi, which is skippered by Briton Walker. They now lead the overall standings from China's Dongfeng Race Team, which finished third in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, Fernandez was savoring a memorable victory, witnessed by tens of thousands of locals, who earlier enjoyed a Cricket World Cup victory in the city over Australia.
"We're super happy to be here in Auckland, and of course, it was a very tough leg," Fernandez told reporters. "We had a very hard last day especially, but we're very happy to be here.
"We have improved a lot over the last two legs. We have a very good team and I hope we can now show the world what we can do and keep doing it like this."
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Dongfeng Race Team are locked together on eight points but Abu Dhabi are ahead because of their better record in the event's separate in-port race series which is also a tie-breaker for the main event.
MAPFRE and the Emirati team went head-to-head for two days, with no more than 5nm separating them for much of that time. The Spanish eventually prevailed with just four minutes and 25 to spare. Dongfeng were just eight minutes behind the winners.
Fernandez was only in charge of this and the previous leg, from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, because the usual skipper, Iker Martinez, was taking time out to prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics. He is chasing his second gold medal having triumphed in Athens 2004.
The Spanish crew overcame two major obstacles to claim victory in Auckland. Their communications system onboard failed at one stage in the leg for three days depriving the crew of weather data, which helps them plot the optimum course.
Additionally, 22-year-old crew member Guillermo Altadill suffered a badly injured right hand when he was thrown across the deck by a huge wave.
He will visit an Auckland doctor on Sunday morning to see if he has broken it.
The boats will now be hauled out of the water for maintenance before embarking on the fifth leg of nine to ItajaÃ, Brazil on March 15.
In all, the fleet will visit 11 ports and every continent, covering 38,739nm in the nine-month marathon. The event, held every three years, concludes in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 27.
Leg 4 results (Sanya, China to Auckland, New Zealand; low points wins): 1 MAPFRE (Spain) 1pt, 2 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 2 pts, 3 Dongfeng Race Team (China) 3 pts, 4 Team Alvimedica (U.S/Turkey) 4 pts, 5 Team Brunel (Netherlands) 5 pts, 6 Team SCA (Sweden) 6 pts, 7 Team Vestas Wind (Denmark) did not start.
Overall standings (after four legs of nine; in-port series breaks ties): 1 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 8 pts, 2 Dongfeng Race Team (China) 8 pts, 3 Team Brunel (Netherlands) 14 pts, 4 MAPFRE (Spain) 16 pts, 5 Team Alvimedica (U.S/Turkey) 16 pts, 6 Team SCA (Sweden) 24 pts, 7 Team Vestas Wind (Denmark) 28 pts.