LONDON - In what one environmentalist described as "yet another public relations disaster" for embattled energy giant BP, CEO Tony Hayward took time off Saturday to attend a glitzy yacht race around England's Isle of Wight.

As social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook lit up with outrage, BP spokespeople rushed to defend Hayward, who has drawn withering criticism as the public face of BP's halting efforts to stop the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Spokeswoman Sheila Williams said Hayward took a break from overseeing BP efforts to stem the undersea gusher in Gulf of Mexico so he could watch his 52-foot (16-meter) yacht "Bob" participate in the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.

The boat, made by the Annapolis, Maryland-based boatbuilder Farr Yacht Design, has a list price of nearly $700,000.

The annual Round the Island Race is one of the world's largest, attracting more than 1,700 boats and 16,000 sailors as famous yachtsmen compete with wealthy amateurs in the 50-nautical mile course around the island.

Robert Wine, a BP spokesman at the company's Houston headquarters, said it was the first break that Hayward has had since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off the undersea oil gusher.

"He's spending a few hours with his family at a weekend. I'm sure that everyone would understand that," Wine said Saturday. "He will be back to deal with the response. It doesn't detract from that at all."

Wine described the race as "one of the biggest sailing events in the world and he's well known to have a keen interest in it."

He said Hayward will be returning to the United States, though it's unclear when.

Still, hobnobbing with millionaire sailors is likely to be a hard sell in the Gulf states, which are struggling to deal with up to 120 million gallons of oil from the blown-out well. 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.

Hayward 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. He later shocked residents in Louisiana by telling them that no one wanted to resolve the crisis as badly as he did because "I'd like my life back."

A pair of relief wells that won't be done until August is the best bet to stop the massive spill. By late June, the oil giant hopes it can keep nearly 90 per cent of the flow from the broken pipe from hitting the ocean.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen says a newly expanded containment system is capturing or incinerating more than 1 million gallons (3.8 million litres) of oil daily, the first time it has approached its peak capacity.

Just minutes after reports about Hayward emerged Saturday, the issue became a hot topic on social networking sites, with people on Twitter passing along the news and reacting to it every few seconds. Some comments called the move "mindboggling," others noted he had gotten his life back -- while Gulf residents had not.

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 of 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.

BP has already had its share of missteps and even the British press, much more sympathetic to the company's plight, has expressed disbelief at its media 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.

That was before news of Hayward's nautical outing broke but after the chief executive made his appearance before a U.S. House investigations panel in which he dodged question after question, claiming he was 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.

"It is clear that Tony has made remarks that have upset people," Svanberg told Sky News television, adding that Hayward was "now handing over" daily operations to BP Managing Director Bob Dudley.

Williams said Svanberg was misunderstood and that only a transition to Dudley, an American with 30 years in the oil business, had begun.

"Hayward is very much in charge until we've stopped the leak," she told the AP on Saturday.

Wine said "there's not a hard and fast date" on when Dudley will be completely in charge.

BP, Britain's largest company before the oil rig exploded, has lost about 45 per cent of its value since then -- a drop has alarmed millions of British retirees whose pension funds hold BP stock. Just this week, BP announced that it was cancelling its quarterly dividend.

It was not clear whether Hayward actually took part in Saturday's race or attended as a spectator. Williams said Hayward was there with his son. A British news agency took a picture of what it thought was Hayward on the yacht that he owns with other investors, but BP would not confirm that it was Hayward.

Peta Stuart-Hunt, a press officer for the event, said Hayward "wasn't listed on any of the crew list."

"If he is on the boat, he's in contravention of the rules," she said.

Hayward's boat finished fourth in its class. In addition to a boat's purchase price, it often costs tens of thousands of pounds (dollars) to equip a yacht for a race as competitive as the Isle of Wight.

This year's attendees at the race included British Olympic gold medal sailor Ben Ainslie.