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.
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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.