ABN AMRO One wins leg 4. Matthew Sheahan reports from the dockside in Rio

At 10pm local time in Rio (0100 GMT), the temperature was 30 degrees – it heats up during the day! But as the first four boats approached the finish line in the dark, the heat of the competition had remained red hot throughout the night.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Mike Sanderson’s ABN AMRO One had held a lead of over 100 miles with less than that distance to reach the finish. Yet, as is often the case at the end of these long legs, the final few miles to the finish can prove agonising for the crews.

As the breeze died close to the shore, ABN One’s estimated time of arrival stretched out into the night, their speed dropping to a few knots while the tightly grouped pack of three charged up behind, barrelling along at over 20 knots, their distances to the finish scrolling down like the digits on a petrol pump.

Such fickle conditions in the closing stages of leg 4 were of little surprise to anyone in the fleet.

“There’s still four days to go and lots more frustration, but to be honest I would stay out here another four weeks if it meant a better result,” said Ericsson’s navigator Steve Hales, echoing the thoughts of all but the leader.

For Mike Sanderson winning this leg was perhaps the sweetest victory so far.

“This was the leg I was most worried about, apart from one or two of the short ones,” he said just minutes after hitting the dock. “We compromised this boat to reach fast in hard downwind conditions and I was a bit worried about it.

“The last thousand miles have been tough, but we’ve been mentally preparing for that for about a year. I think the guys behind thought they we re going to catch up but the boat went well and think it surprised a few people as to how well we went in the light airs.”

But given the stress of the Southern Ocean, which did he find most demanding?

“The south is hard work mentally, these things are so fast it’s like taking a 49er across the Atlantic, it’s full on. We saw 38 knots of boat speed at times. You skip over a few waves, then you plough into the next one and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve just got to decide how far you can push it. We spent a fair bit of time backed off and then a couple of times we put the hammer down.

So how much additional pressure had he felt knowing that the boat had shown less pace in the lighter conditions?

“It’s a game we hoped we’d be able to play with that weakness when we got offshore. You only have to be a little way away with a little bit more breeze and you’ve got a faster boat. Offshore it’s much more about wind and where you can place the boat and that was the deal coming up the coast here. But offshore the boat’s no slouch in the light.”

Navigator Stan Honey was also clearly delighted that the boat and crew had been able to prove a point.

“Some of the other crews were telling folks that if they were within 200 miles of us at the Horn then they could beat us up the Atlantic and it was fun that. While we did have a lead at the Horn, it wasn’t that large and it was fun that we could do well in some light air,” he said.

“To that degree it was real testament to the degree in which we are able to sail well in the light stuff.”

Given how close the chasing pack had been throughout the leg, had he felt more pressure than in previous legs?

“It’s nice to be able to win a race when you’ve got a bunch of boats 20 miles behind. On the other hand, that’s one of the things that this crews is the best at. When the pressure comes on the professionalism and the skill of this team really shows.”

In recounting the leg, Sanderson confirmed that the pressure had been on right up until the end.

“I didn’t think we’d won this leg until this afternoon. Even then in the harbour it looked like we were going to get swept past the wrong side of the finish with the current, so even then it was a pretty nervous time.”

But as the local time eased into the early hours and the outside temperature remained stuck at a humid 30 degrees, the heat on ABN One at least had eased the second they crossed the line at 0018 local (0318GMT).