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Panama Canal making drastic cuts to booking slots as drought worsens

Photo: ACP Vessel transiting the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal announced a series of sharp reductions in booking slots to just 18 daily by February 2024 following the driest month of October in 73 years.

The Panama Canal stated in an Advisory to Shipping dated 30 October, that “based on the rainfall projections for the following weeks, which as of today is expected to be 38% less for the rest of the year, the ACP finds it necessary to further reduce the daily transit capacity to postpone the need for additional draught reductions below the current 13.41m (44 feet) TFW,”

The canal, which has a normal capacity for 38 to 40 daily transits, has been operating at a total of 32 daily transits between the two sets of locks (Neo-panamax and Panamax) since July 30 and was scheduled to go to 30 assigned slots on November 1. However, the Canal Authority is outlining more drastic cuts reducing the number of guaranteed booking slots to just 18 by February next year.

“From November 3, 2023, to November 6, 2023, the number of booking slots will be reduced to 25, and from November 7 to November 30, 2023, the number of booking slots will be reduced to 24.

“In addition, from December 1 to December 31, 2023, the number of booking slots will further be reduced to 22, and from January 1, 2024, to January 31, 2024, the number of booking slots will be reduced to 20. For booking dates beginning February 1, 2024, and until further notice, the number of booking slots will be reduced to 18 per day,” said the Advisory.

Reservation of booking slots are particularly popular with container lines that need to guarantee the date of transiting the waterway so as to keep to fixed day schedules.

The cost of reservation slots soared to record highs at auctions after the cuts were announced at mid-year. Larger containerships have already been forced to sail with smaller loads or offload containers for transhipment across Panama, an option not available to gas carriers and bulkers.

Listen to a recent episode of the Seatrade Maritime Podcast with Panama Canal Administrator Ricaurte Vasquez Morales

Since the beginning of the 2023 dry season, the Panama Canal adopted several water saving and conservation measures in the transit operation, including the use of water saving basins in the Neo-panamax Locks and cross-filling in the Panamax Locks, the Authority said.

“The late arrival of this year’s rainy season, and lack of precipitation in the Canal watershed has obliged the Canal to reduce the transit capacity to approximately 32 vessels per day since July 30, 2023, while managing the available rainfall over the watershed to maintain Gatun Lake at a level that would offer a competitive draught for our clients,” the Advisory said.

On September 29, 2023, the Canal announced an additional reduction in capacity, effective November 1, 2023.

“Despite all measures taken, the level of Gatun Lake has continued to decline to unprecedented levels for this time of year. The recorded precipitation for October has been the lowest on record since 1950 (41% below), and so far, 2023 ranks as the second driest year for the same period. “

The Advisory noted that “the number of slots is based on the present and projected level of Gatun Lake for the following weeks. Further adjustments in the daily number of transits will be announced depending on the rainfall in the Canal watershed and level of Gatun Lake. As indicated in previous advisories, the ACP strongly encourages vessels to make use of the Transit Reservation system to guarantee a transit date and to reduce the possibility of extensive delays.”