EMPIRE, La. – BP chief executive Tony Hayward took a day off Saturday to see his 52-foot yacht “Bob” compete in a glitzy race off England’s shore, a leisure trip that further infuriated residents of the oil-stained Gulf Coast.
While Hayward’s pricey ship whipped around the Isle of Wight on a good day for sailing — breezy and about 68 degrees — anger simmered on the steamy Gulf Coast, where crude has been washing in from the still-gushing spill.
“Man, that ain’t right. None of us can even go out fishing, and he’s at the yacht races,” said Bobby Pitre, 33, who runs a tattoo shop in the crossroads town of Larose, La. “I wish we could get a day off from the oil, too.”
BP spokespeople rushed to defend Hayward, who has drawn withering criticism as the public face of BP PLC’s halting efforts to stop the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Company spokesman Robert Wine said the break is the first for Hayward since the Deepwater Horizon rig BP was leasing exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off the undersea gusher.
“He’s spending a few hours with his family at a weekend. I’m sure that everyone would understand that,” Wine said.
He noted Hayward is a well known as a fan of the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race, one of the world’s largest, which attracts more than 1,700 boats and 16,000 sailors as famous yachtsmen compete with wealthy amateurs in a 50-nautical mile course around the island at England’s southern tip.
“Bob” finished fourth in its group. It was not clear whether Hayward actually took part in Saturday’s race or attended as a spectator.
The boat, made 10 years ago by the Annapolis, Md.-based boatbuilder Farr Yacht Design, lists for nearly $700,000.
Hayward had already angered many in the U.S. when he was quoted in the Times of London as suggesting that Americans were particularly likely to file bogus claims for compensation from the spill. He later shocked Louisiana residents by telling them that no one wanted to resolve the crisis as badly as he did because “I’d like my life back.”
Ronnie Kennier, a 49-year-old oysterman from Empire, La., said Hayward’s day among the sailboats showed once again just how out of touch BP executives are with the financial and emotional suffering along the Gulf.
“He wanted to get his life back,” Kennier said. “I guess he got it.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made the same observation Saturday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden enjoyed a round of golf Saturday near Washington, something they’ve done on other weekends since the spill and a fact that wasn’t lost on users of social networking sites. Twitter feeds compared Obama and Biden’s golfing to Hayward’s yachting, lumping them together as diversions of privileged people who should be paying more attention to the oil gushing into the Gulf.
“Our government, the executives at BP, it looks like they decide to worry about it later,” said Capt. Dwayne Price, a charter fisherman in Grand Isle, La., who now spends his days shuttling media out to the oiled waters. “Things need to happen now. The longer this is strung out, the worse it’s going to be.”
Messages seeking comment were left for officials at the White House, who have struggled to counter criticism at home of how the administration has handled the disaster. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday showed 52 percent now disapprove of Obama’s handling of the oil spill, up significantly from last month.
BP, Britain’s largest company before the oil rig exploded, has lost about 45 percent of its value since the explosion — a drop that has alarmed millions of British retirees whose pension funds hold BP stock. Just this week, the company announced that it was canceling its quarterly dividend.
The British press, much more sympathetic than the American media to BP’s plight, has expressed disbelief at the company’s strategy.
“It is hard to recall a more catastrophically mishandled public relations response to a crisis than the one we are witnessing,” the Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner wrote Friday.
About 50 miles off the coast, a newly expanded containment system is capturing or incinerating more than 1 million gallons of oil daily, the first time it has approached its peak capacity, according to the Coast Guard. BP hopes that by late June it will be able to keep nearly 90 percent of the flow from the broken pipe from hitting the ocean.
More than 120 million gallons have leaked from the well, according to the most pessimistic federal daily flow rate estimates. Oil has been washing up from Louisiana to Florida, killing birds and fish, coating delicate marshes and wetlands and covering pristine beaches with tar balls.
A pair of relief wells considered the best chance at a permanent fix won’t be done until August.
BP has put many idled commercial fishermen to work on the cleanup. But not everyone.
Sai Stiffler spent Saturday doing some repairs on his shrimp boat at Delta Marina in Empire, La., after a passing shower made things stiflingly hot and muggy. He signed up for BP’s “vessel of opportunity” program but hasn’t been hired, and he was not pleased that Obama was playing golf and BP’s CEO was at a yacht race while his life is on hold.
“Right now is no time for that,” Stiffler said. “I don’t think they know how bad people are hurting. They make a lot of promises but that’s it.”
Raymond Canevari, 59, of Pensacola, said he was insulted by the fact that Hayward would take in a yacht race while the oil still flows.
“I think everyone has the right to do what they want in their free time, but he doesn’t have the right to have free time at all,” said Canevari, who scouts the bayous, bays and Gulf for driftwood and other found objects, and turns the debris into nature-themed art. “Not until this crisis is resolved.”
Satter reported from London. Associated Press writers Ramit Plushnick-Masti in New Orleans, Mary Foster in Larose, La., Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala., and Tamara Lush in Pensacola, Fla., and AP videojournalist Bonny Ghosh in Grand Isle, La., contributed to this report.
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