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Dozens of ships waiting to cross the Panama Canal as it maintains restrictions on the crossing of vessels due to a drought in Panama City. Image Credit: AFP

A logjam at the Panama Canal is leaving shipowners hauling everything from fuels to grains between the US and Asia with no good options - spend weeks waiting at sea, sail around South America, or pay an exorbitant amount to jump the queue.

Japan's Eneos Group forked out $3.98 million in an auction Wednesday to secure a crossing, bidding documents show. Shipbrokers said Sunny Bright, the company's liquefied petroleum gas tanker, got a slot to cross the congested waterway in the north-bound direction on November 15. It had previously discharged the fuel it was carrying in China.

The additional fee will be on top of the regular transit charges, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Disruption of trade

The congestion is being caused by a drought in Panama, which has lowered water levels on the canal, disrupting trade between the US and Asia in the weeks ahead of Christmas and beyond.

Another option is to sail around South America. At least one other shipowner took the costly decision to divert its tanker from the canal to this much longer journey. Shipbrokers said the Pyxis Pioneer, also an LPG tanker, is heading south and may travel through the Strait of Magellan, which will add about a month to its original schedule.

"You are getting close to $4.5 million to use the canal, so that is pricing out a lot of ships," Oystein Kalleklev, chief executive officer of Flex LNG Ltd. and Avance Gas Holding Ltd., said during a conference call Wednesday.

The Panama Canal Authority confirmed a record was set in the November 8 auction but didn't name the auction winner. Eneos declined to comment when contacted on the matter.

A queue of ships waiting to use the canal has been growing for weeks as the authority announced increasingly drastic restrictions for the depleted waterway lasting into next year, while also selling the rights to jump the queue. It held 140 auctions last month, with three of those coming in above $1 million.

Shipbrokers said fresh records may be hit in upcoming sales.