Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom
Aerial view of the Carl McNab Galaxy Terminal and 147 foot Tropical Wave in Dixon Cove.

A Family Business Provides the Safest Transportation Service in Honduras

Taking a Galaxy ferry from La Ceiba to Roatan is the safest way of travelling in Honduras. Safer then flying small airplanes, safer than taking a bus or driving a car. This was not the case previously. Until the 1990s the journey was frat with accidents, and delays. Nothing like the fast, safe and dependable link Roatan has with the mainland today.The missing key to providing regular passenger service between Roatan and the mainland was the lack of docking facilities in La Ceiba.The banana company build dock was designed for much larger ships and it was impossible to use it,” said John McNab, Safe Way Maritime Transportation Company, popularly known as Galaxy. The original dock in La Ceiba was built in 1910 by Vaccaros Brothers and Co. and was decommissioned in 1989. The new, easier to access La Ceiba port was opened on the estuary of Yaruca creek, just a few hundred meters east of Rio Cangrejal.

The roots of Galaxy’s maritime transport lie in the fishing industry. “Allan Hyde brought the first fishing boat to the island, but my father [Carl McNab] brought the second one in 1964-5,” remembers the old times John McNab. When the McNab family got into the commercial fishing business there were several other islanders that provided passenger service to islanders. Oswald Ebanks run his ‘Norma Dawn’ between Oak Ridge and Coxen Hole, stopping in Jonesville and French Harbour. Dyten Bodden had his ‘Sea Lean’ boat moving people up and down Roatan. That was in the 1950s through to the 1970s, until the road was built on the island.

In the early 1980s, Larry McLaughlin, an island entrepreneur, launched “Flying Tiger.” a boat providing a passenger transport between Roatan and La Ceiba’s old dock. The boat, however, had to be hauled onto a ramp in La Ceiba, which was cumbersome, inefficient and time-consuming.. Therefore, the only way to travel between the mainland and Roatan at the time was via plane, on a freighter boat or on a dory.

Everything changed in 1994 when John McNab, Jerry Hynds and Danny McNab launched the Safe Way Maritime Transportation Company. “It was Jerry’s idea,” remembers the beginning John McNab. “We left the next week to look for a boat.” John McNab oversaw the maintenance, Jerry Hynds oversaw personnel and Danny McNab oversaw books. “They were all very close friends,” says Jennifer McNab, John’s daughter.

Tropical’s initial voyage took place on May 28, 1994, and the captain of the boat was John McNab himself. At first Tropical would leave Roatan for La Ceiba, go to Utila, return to La Ceiba and eventually back to Roatan. For the first 10 days John McNab captained the Tropical until Capt.

Leonard Bennet took over the wheel. John McNab still occasionally captains his catamarans. “I’m here every morning making sure all goes ok,” says John McNab.

Wave begun an inexpensive, dependable and regular transport allowing for the opening of tourism and investment from Honduras’ northern coast. The boat was originally a crew boat retrofitted to accommodate 225 passengers. The one-hundred-and-five-foot Tropical Wave was refurbished in Emilio, Louisiana. It would take her 2 hours, 30 minutes to travel the 68-kilometer distance between Coxen Hole and La Ceiba.

But not everything went as planned. The worst moment for the company came in 1996 when Captain Bennet run Tropical onto the rocks in La Ceiba harbor. The boat’s compartment doors were left open and they were quickly flooded, sinking the vessel. “We were just starting to get going and then I thought we had lost it all,” said John McNab. Fortunately, the sinking happened in a shallow port area and the vessel was quickly refloated and towed for repairs to the US. After four months she was back in service. “All the passengers came back and within a week we were back to normal,” remembers John McNab.

In 1998-99 Ervin Dixon gave Galaxy competition with his “The Nautica” but the company’s next boat came into service in December 1998 and the 105–foot Galaxy II was able to travel to La Ceiba with 350 passengers in 1 hour, 45 minutes.

In 2002-3 John McNab bought out his two partners and turned Galaxy into a true family business. Now that John McNab is getting older, he is looking at his children to take over more and more. “I would have never go-in without my children there to help me,” says John McNab. “They play a big role in this.” Galaxy is 100% family business.

John McNab is the founder and owner, Jennifer McNab is the General Manager and Ron McNab the operations manager. “I’m here every day, if I am on Roatan, I am here, especially if she is leaving,” says John McNab. “If the captain gets stuck in traffic, I take the boat.” And that does happen from time to time. Regardless, Galaxy, rain or shine, four passengers or 460, she always leaves at 7am.

As numbers of people arriving on Roatan grew, Coxen Hole was getting increasingly difficult to access. “We were a course for all traffic,” says Jennifer McNab. Sometimes the future of an enterprise, even entire nations, lies in the hands of bureaucrats. Also, the fate of Galaxy, Dixon Cove and perhaps Roatan was determined by one Municipal Official who refused to give Galaxy a permit for building a dock in Coxen Hole in 2005. John McNab decided to purchase a lot in Dixon Cove and build a terminal there. Fifteen years later Dixon Cove has become a hub on the island with construction of a new public hospital and a new municipal building.

So, to keep growing in 2006, Galaxy purchased land in Dixon Cove and built a terminal named after John McNabs’s father, Carl McNab. “He started working for his dad, and every decision he would do was after consulting with him,” Jennifer McNab said about her father.

Galaxy Wave, a 152 foot catamaran, stepped into the line-up in 2006 and in 2010 Galaxy Tropical joined the fleet. “Catamaran is superior to a monohulled in almost any weather conditions unless it’s a head on wind,” says John McNab. To avoid the head-on wind Galaxy catamarans will sometime head on towards the Cayos Cochinos and only then turn towards La Ceiba.

In 2019, Galaxy provided four daily travel times between Roatan and La Ceiba that were full leaving Roatan and almost empty coming back in. On the Sunday of 2019 Holly Week, Galaxy achieved a record seven trips between Roatan and La Ceiba. Galaxy keeps her schedule no matter what. “We still leave the port if we have five passengers, or the boat is full. People depend on us,” says Jennifer McNab, Captain Windell Dixon and Capt. Chad Bodden, who are the two captains responsible for the Galaxy catamarans.

The weekday passengers are mostly islanders travelling back and forth. On the weekends and during holidays the majority using the service are tourists. The McNab family has a vision beyond just Roatan and La Ceiba. The vision is to provide a service from Roatan to Guanaja and Trujillo, returning the same way, three times a week. The biggest obstacle is the lack of docking facilities in Trujillo and small tourist infrastructure on Guanaja.

Even the Dixon Cove to La Ceiba route proves to be a challenge. There is an ongoing issue with La Ceiba Port entrance and the need to have it continually dredged. Occasionally, vessels coming into port get into trouble and there have been several that sunk. Even Galaxy Wave turned back twice. In February 2019, Galaxy Wave stopped 100 meters before the entrance to La Ceiba harbor. The captain studied the conditions of the entrance and decided to turn back.

Fate of Galaxy, Dixon Cove and perhaps Roatan was determined by one Municipal Official

The trade winds move more sand into the port and the port gets shallower. “We offered the city of La Ceiba to buy a dredger and dredge the port ourselves in return for lowering our docking fees, but they refused,” said John McNab. “So, the port of La Ceiba estimated it could be a three-million-dollar dredging operation.”

Galaxy is not just a vital company to keep Roatan functioning. It was there to help in times of trouble. After 1998 Hurricane Mitch hovered over Guanaja for 48 hours, Tropical came in with supplies. “We were the first boat on the scene,” says Congressman Ron McNab, Operations manager at Safe Way, who came to Guanaja with his father. When hurricane Ivan hit the Cayman Islands in 2004 Safe Way Maritime loaded up supplies of water, canned goods and headed to the sister archipelago with relief.

There is a perception that private businesses cannot oversee complex, vital infrastructure of communities and cities. We are sometimes told that only government can run our schools, power companies, trash collection, airports or sewers. In fact, all these projects could be run by private companies, and on Roatan, they are.