For 20 days they have been small coloured dots on a computer screen, inching their way through the South China Sea down through the Pacific and finally down the east coast of the upper North Island and into Auckland.

Video and audio from the boats told of crews battling gale force winds, perilous seas and the more dreaded alternative - light and fickle winds.

They faced extreme sleep deprivation, hunger and exhaustion.

But it wasn't until the green sail of Groupama, lit up by the navigation lights of a 30-strong flotilla of boats, was first spotted on the horizon coming through the Rangitoto Channel on Saturday night that their superhuman feats were brought to life.


There they were - the sailors in the flesh (albeit less of it when they first started the 5220-nautical-mile journey from Sanya, China) making their way up the Waitemata Harbour ticking off the final few miles of the gruelling leg.

With a 12-hour lead on the rest of the fleet, the French boat could have afforded a leisurely cruise as the on-water spectators blasted their horns in appreciation of their efforts.

But they kept pushing right to the finish line just off Princes Wharf, where hundreds more were gathered to welcome the first boat home. The gun sounded at 11.33pm and a chilling karanga echoed across the harbour to welcome the crew to New Zealand.

A ragged, unkempt bunch of sailors arrived dockside sporting dark circles under their eyes, 20-day-old beards and broad smiles.

The elation at getting to see their families and supporters again after nearly three weeks on a boat with 10 other men, masked their exhaustion.

While Groupama skipper Franck Cammas doused his teammates in champagne during the on-stage celebrations, the rest of the fleet were slogging it out in the darkness further up the coast for the remaining podium places.

The last 200 nautical miles from North Cape was a mighty three-way tussle between Puma, Team New Zealand and the overall race leaders, Telefonica.

The three boats played a cat-and-mouse game all the way down the coast, keeping alive the tradition of dramatic finishes into Auckland.

Puma won the battle for second, crossing the line just before midday yesterday. Skipper Ken Read said it felt more like first place after sailing "the best 72 hours that this team has put together".

Camper eked every last metre out of its home advantage, pursuing Telefonica up the harbour. But the Kiwi boat ultimately ran out of runway, the Spaniards taking third place by just 50m. It was a gut-wrenching end to what had been a tough leg for Camper, who after a strong start found themselves relegated to the rear of the fleet when they suffered gear damage.

The team were desperate to win the race to their home stopover, marking a triumphant return to Auckland after a 10-year absence from the race.

But skipper Chris Nicholson had no regrets about the way his team sailed the leg.

"If you left everything out there, you can't have any regrets," he said.

Over the next week Nicholson and his team will look for ways they can improve their performance on the next leg to Itajai, Brazil.

But yesterday, the only thing on the minds of the Camper crew was the same as every other team arriving into port - all they wanted was a cold beer, a decent meal and some sleep.