Owners and charterers desperate to get their ships through a drought-hit Panama Canal have driven transit slot auction prices to a new record.

Fearnley Securities reported that on Monday, bidding for a crossing was concluded at a whopping $2.85m.

This compares with a normal booking fee of about $900,000 and beats the previous highest price of $2.6m from November last year.

An Asian charterer was linked to that bid.

Avance Gas chief executive Oystein Kalleklev told TradeWinds that the new record holder was a VLGC heading southbound.

Ships had been paying up to $2.4m so far in 2023.

The Panama Canal Authority, known as the ACP, offers one or two vacant crossing times through the neo-panamax locks to the highest bidder each day.

The auctions are generally won by LNG or LPG carriers.

TradeWinds had reported earlier this year that a new record fee was likely to be paid.

The situation could soon become more pressured after the ACP announced drastic cuts to daily crossing numbers as water levels continue to fall.

Normally, 36 vessels cross per day, but this has already been reduced to 32.

Squeezing out VLGCs?

This number will fall to 25 and then 24 during November, to 22 in December, 20 in January and then to just 18 in February “until further notice”, according to a circular from the ACP.

Pareto Securities has already warned that VLGCs could be squeezed out as a result.

Rates for the big gas carriers continued their upward march this week, gaining ground for the 10th straight day.

Voyages from the Middle East Gulf to Asia were paying $119,000 per day, with $117,000 being achieved from Houston to Japan.

Record levels of above $170,000 were reported earlier this year.

Fearnley Securities said the VLGC fleet will be further stretched as transits are cut.

Waiting times typically peak in November. Last year, the month saw an average of 16 days of delays for VLGCs southbound and 20 days northbound.