On Wednesday, tanker titan Frontline (NYSE:FRO) reported robust operating income of $190.9 million, but after backing out large gains of $66.1 million from asset sales, the adjusted figure fell 6% year over year and 21% sequentially.

The company secured strong rates for its crude tankers, thanks in part to the composition of its fleet. Double-hull tankers, which are quickly becoming the industry standard for safety, provide Frontline a nice pricing differential over single-hull vessels. Double-hull Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), for example, earned $57,700/day in the spot market, versus $51,900/day fleet-wide.

Nevertheless, margins were pressured by a reduction in trading days -- the amount of the time the vessels were out earning their keep -- versus the prior quarter. The company didn't break out this figure in its earnings presentation, but it's not too surprising that we saw a decline, given the ready availability of VLCCs and Suezmax vessels. If you're curious about the correlation between tanker rates and availability, Citigroup (NYSE:C) has a nifty little chart.

Tanker fans have been kept on edge lately by the recent steep drop in spot market rates. This is typically a seasonally weak period, but VLCC rates dropped about 25% from the beginning of the third quarter through Tuesday, hitting fresh four-year lows. Until yesterday, in fact, it appeared that Frontline would be running about breakeven on spot contracts. It's important to be aware that Frontline's breakeven point is quite high compared to that of, for example, Nordic American Tanker (NYSE:NAT), given its higher debt levels.

Suddenly there is a sign of relief, however. The Baltic Exchange is reporting that supertanker rates jumped 20% on Wednesday.  I have no idea if this marks a decisive turning of the tide for Frontline, Overseas Shipholding (NYSE:OSG), and Tsakos Energy Navigation (NYSE:TNP). But it could mean that the third quarter will be slightly less brutal than observers were anticipating.

I'm extremely hesitant to read too deeply into moves like this, but if you're confident that both tanker and crude oil fundamentals are in place, the recent market sell-off has given you a chance to buy into any of these leading operators much more cheaply than you could have just a few short weeks ago.

Related Foolishness:

You can check out any of the Fool's newsletters with a 30-day free trial.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't own shares in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a shipshape disclosure policy.