BP chief executive Tony Hayward, often criticized for being tone-deaf to U.S. concerns about the worst oil spill in American history, took time off Saturday to attend a glitzy yacht race off England's Isle of Wight.
Spokeswoman Sheila Williams said Hayward took a break from overseeing BP efforts to stem the undersea gusher in Gulf of Mexico to watch his boat "Bob" participate in the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.
The one-day yacht race is one of the world's largest, attracting hundreds of boats and thousands of sailors.
In a statement, BP described Hayward's day off as "a rare moment of private time" and said that "no matter where he is, he is always in touch with what is happening within BP" and can direct recovery operations if required.
That is likely to be a hard sell in Gulf states struggling to deal with the up to 120 million gallons of oil that have escaped from a blown-out undersea well.
A pair of relief wells that won't be done until August is the best bet to stop the massive spill that was set off by an oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers on April 20. BP has been hammered for its response, in part because of comments by Hayward that Gulf Coast residents horrified by the spill consider insensitive.
By late June, the oil giant hopes it can keep nearly 90 percent of the flow from hitting the ocean. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen on Friday said a newly expanded containment system is capturing or incinerating more than 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of oil daily, the first time it has approached its peak capacity.
British environmental groups immediately slammed Hayward's outing. Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace said Hayward was "rubbing salt into the wounds" of Gulf residents whose livelihoods have been wrecked by the disaster.
"Clearly it is incredibly insulting for him to be sailing in the Isle of Wight," he said.
Hugh Walding, the coordinator of the Isle of Wight Friends of the Earth, said Hayward's choice of venue was sure to arouse anger.
"I'm sure that this will be seen as yet another public relations disaster," Walding said.
Hayward's public persona has already dented the company's image. Hayward angered many in the United States when he was quoted in the Times of London as suggesting that Americans were particularly likely to file bogus claims. He later shocked residents in Louisiana by telling them that no one wanted to resolve the crisis as badly as he did, adding: "I'd like my life back."
On Thursday, Hayward told lawmakers on a U.S. House investigations panel that he was out of the loop on decisions surrounding the blown well. Both Democrats and Republicans were infuriated when he asserted, "I'm not stonewalling."
The next day, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg seemed to suggest that Hayward was being withdrawn from the front line of the oil spill response, although his comments were later qualified by company spokespeople.
"It is clear that Tony has made remarks that have upset people," Svanberg said in a U.K. television interview.
It was not clear whether Hayward actually took part in Saturday's race or attended as a spectator. Williams refused to comment beyond saying that the embattled chief executive was there with his son.
Peta Stuart-Hunt, a press officer for the event, said Hayward "wasn't listed on any of the crew list." She said she could not immediately who was on the crew list.
"If he is on the boat, he's in contravention of the rules," she said.
Associated Press Writer Ray Henry contributed from New Orleans.