No one remembers exactly why the first one was called Operation Tiger, but the idea was a hit from the start. As many as 1,250 guests are invited to bunk aboard an aircraft carrier—or amphibious assault ship, landing helicopter dock, or submarine—during the last leg of its cruise into homeport, which can last from two to five nights.
Beside getting to see firsthand what life at sea is like, the guest Tigers pitch in to help with everyday chores that their favorite airman or sailor would call “work.”
Guests on a Tiger Cruise can be family members or friends, but under Navy regulations a Tiger cannot be a “significant other” such as a spouse, fiancé or fiancée, girlfriend or boyfriend of the sponsoring crew.
For deployments to the Pacific, most guests embark in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, en route to San Diego. For missions that wind down in the Atlantic, Tigers might come aboard during a port call in Jacksonville, Florida, before the ship sails to Norfolk. Typically some of the Naval crew disembarks to make room in their lockers, berths, and mess halls for the guests.
During their days at sea the Tigers are treated to some of the best air shows ever staged for civilians. While the aircraft demonstrate standard military maneuvers, with a thousand Tigers on board, a little extra flair can’t hurt. Spectators are closely chaperoned to follow all ship rules—meaning that they stay behind the painted lines—but still get to stand thrillingly close to active aircraft moving at blistering airspeeds.
Since Navy pilots have to practice these maneuvers anyway, there’s no real cost for the “airshow.” Tigers do pay a fee, however, with a recent cruise costing $82. Guests share standard meals served to ships’ crews, and can buy snacks as well as commemorative merchandise, as long as their sponsor loads up on his or her Navy Cash card.
In the early days the voyage was called a dependent’s cruise, with only sons and fathers allowed. Now there are no gender restrictions, although Tigers must be at least eight years old (although certain ships only accept guests from ages 12 to 75). Pregnant women can’t cruise, and prospective Tigers have to submit a medical history and must be able to negotiate a ladder. Sleeping berths are separated by gender, and are based on the rank of the sponsor—even if the guest happens to be a retired admiral.
And even though it’s the trip of a lifetime, Tigers are limited to what stories they can tell. Neither crew sponsors nor their guests can disclose the ship’s movement or location during the cruise, and can only discuss it in general terms later. Sensitive or hazardous areas such as the nuclear reactor are off limits. Finally, cell phones can be brought on board, but their use is prohibited. Most Tigers would probably consider it a small price to pay.