EMPIRE, LA—It could have been a turnaround week in BP's campaign to convince the public that it's doing everything possible to contain the damage from the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
The company pledged to set aside $20 billion to help spill victims, and the containment system at the site of the crippled well was capturing or burning increasing amounts of oil.
Instead, the company faced renewed anger Saturday after reports that chief executive Tony Hayward had jetted back to England to attend an exclusive yachting competition.
Hayward took Saturday off to see his 52-foot yacht "Bob" compete in a race around the Isle of Wight off southern England. It was a good day for sailing - breezy and about 68 degrees - but anger simmered on the steamy Gulf Coast, where crude oil is still gushing from a blown-out well.
"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 Larose, La. "I wish we could get a day off from the oil, too."
BP spokespeople rushed to defend Hayward, who has drawn biting criticism as the public face of BP PLC's halting efforts to stop the spill.
Company spokesman Robert Wine said the break is the first for Hayward since the Deepwater Horizon rig that 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.
"Bob" finished fourth in its group. It was not clear whether Hayward took part in the 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 suffering along the Gulf.
"He wanted to get his life back," Kennier said. "I guess he got it."
Meanwhile, President Barack 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 not 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 spill.
"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.
White House officials have struggled to counter criticism of Obama's handling of the disaster. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday showed 52 percent now disapprove of Obama's handling of the spill, up significantly from last month.
About 50 miles off Louisiana's 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 keep nearly 90 percent of the flow from the broken pipe from hitting the ocean.
More than 120 million gallons have leaked already, according to the most pessimistic federal daily flow rate estimates. Oil has been washing up from Louisiana to Florida, killing birds and fish, coating marshes and wetlands and covering pristine beaches with tar balls and oily debris.
A pair of relief wells considered the best chance at a permanent fix won't be completed until August.
BP has put many idled commercial fishermen to work on the cleanup. But not everyone.
Sai Stiffler spent Saturday repairing his shrimp boat at Delta Marina in Empire, La., on a hot and muggy day. 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."