The remaining seven Diaoyu voyagers yesterday made an emotional return to Tsim Sha Tsui, from where they had sailed 10 days earlier for the islands.
Captain Yeung Hong hailed their expedition, during which seven activists landed on the main island, a "miracle".
And as they were greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters, activist Lo Chau praised the determination of his "brothers" as the key to their "victory".
Yeung, 45, dismissed claims their mission succeeded only because the mainland, Japanese and Hong Kong authorities loosened their grip.
"We never knew what the Japanese were planning," he said. "We only made use of their mistakes and went through bit by bit," he said.
He said their vessel, the Kai Fung No2, was slow and was surrounded by 17 Japanese boats.
"Every single one of them was more than four times faster than us. Why did we make it [to the islands]?" Yeung asked.
"It was not only a miracle ... it happened because the brothers devoted painstaking effort … and we achieved a wish of more than a decade."
Yeung said he wept tears of joy after landing on the rocky Diaoyu Island. "I was speechless … I cried for five minutes, and did nothing else after returning to the boat."
He said Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's absence from the welcoming group did not disappoint him. "We welcome anyone who wants to greet us, but this not personal heroism, it is part of a movement," he said.
Lo, who owns the Kai Fung No2, said the vessel had been under Marine Department surveillance 24 hours a day and had been stopped seven times from leaving Hong Kong waters. "The administration is relatively civilised in many things, but towards the Diaoyu [activists], they were doing something barbaric, just like the Japanese," he said.
In preparation for the voyage, the vessel was modified, he said.
"But the most important preparation was our brothers' determination, which made it possible for us to break the cordon of the marine police and deal with the developments that followed … it was a victory," he said.
The Marine Department said the Kai Fung No2 was licensed only for fishing and that it was empowered to stop it leaving Hong Kong for other purposes.
Lo and Yeung both urged the government to change the rules.
The activists detoured to Cheung Chau early yesterday so that fisherman Cheung Kam-mun and his two sons could meet their family. Cheung's wife, Leung Sap-mui, giggled as she waited for her husband and his special "catch" from the voyage. "He said he grabbed some pebbles … pebbles from the Diaoyu Islands," she shrieked.
Cheung was on the expedition with sons Wai-keung, 39, and Wai-man, 30. His daughters and grandson joined him later for the voyage to Tsim Sha Tsui.
As the Kai Fung No2 entered Hong Kong waters, a police boat took over escort duties from a mainland vessel. Immigration officers boarded the boat to register the activists because one was from Macau and another from Shenzhen.