When a sailor falls overboard, seconds count, especially on moonless nights and in low-visibility conditions when rescue can fast become nearly impossible. For this reason it’s critically important to stay highly visible. SOLAS-grade reflective tape is super-reflective and your first line of defense to help rescuers visually fix your location under poor conditions.
We regard reflective tape as must-have safety equipment that should be affixed to all emergency equipment — especially since it works passively and regardless of a victim’s condition. Aboard the S/V gCaptain, The Teak Rail’s seagoing laboratory and gCaptain’s mobile HQ, we have affixed the tape to lifejackets, our ditch-bag, and the EPIRB. We also ran a long strip down the side of our rigid inflatable dingy, which doubles as a near-costal life raft, and on the bottom of the RIB in the event it turtles in a large swell.
Manufacturers make many brands and types of reflective tape, but not all are created equal. The best is 3M Scotchlite 3150 Reflective Tape, a high-intensity SOLAS-grade variety. According to 3M’s technical guidance, tapes in its 3100 series use a “silver, flexible reflective material with an aggressive pressure sensitive adhesive.” This means the tape sticks to nearly every surface and stays put.
Before applying the tape, surfaces should be cleaned thoroughly with a good solvent: 3M suggests using naphtha or mineral spirits. In real world conditions, I have seen strips of this tape applied to surfaces laden with salt, grime and oil, and prepared by nothing more than a few quick swipes with a damp rag — and the tape adhered. More important, this tape will stick and retain its reflectivity for years, even in the tough working environment of an oil rig or a commercial ship.
Practical Sailor tested Scotchlite 3150 on several surfaces, including a foam-filled life jacket covered in nylon, on an older inflatable dinghy that lives in the water, on the shoulders of a foul-weather jacket, and on the wooden sides of a dock. They found the tape stuck to its surface in each case. We’ve also found Scotchlite Reflective to be a favorite in a variety of online marine and boating forums. 3M stays the tape sticks to:
• Rough surfaces
• Glass-reinforced polyester
• Rubber-coated cloth
• Rubber film
• Vinyl and PVC films
• Polyurethane film
• Polyester fabric (varies with treatment)
• Nylon fabric
• Cotton drill (thicker weave)
One downside is the tape is expensive, costing an average of about $2 per foot. 3M also makes a non-SOLAS-grade Scotchlite reflective tape that’s nearly as reflective as the SOLAS-grade version, but which does not hold as tenaciously as the 3150. It also tends to peel off if one section of the strip lifts from the surface. The SOLAS-grade tape is made of glass beads divided into rows of tiny hexagon-shaped cuts covered by a thin layer of vinyl urethane polymer that binds the rows into a two-inch wide strip.
Why is SOLAS-grade tape so expensive? SOLAS stands for the International Maritime Organization’s Safety Of Life At Sea Convention, a maritime safety treaty that ensures ships comply with a great variety of safety standards. The first SOLAS convention was held after the sinking of the Titanic. Later conventions added new technologies and methods to safety equipment used aboard large ships.
The design, properties and production of SOLAS-grade tape must meet the convention’s standards. In the case of reflective tape, safety technicians measure the amount of reflected light, the angle of the reflected light, the strength of the adhesive grip, even the cleanability of each manufacturer’s proposed tape before granting it SOLAS approval.
One worrisome issue about the tape is that its vinyl urethane coating sometimes peals off. I have used Scotchlite Reflective on many types of surface — including steel, fabric and rubber — and found the coating comes off in six months to a year when affixed to a flexible surface, like a Hypalon dinghy or a vinyl horseshoe ring. You should replace the tape when this happens. However, we have also witnessed tape that remained reflective (on other people’s boats, of course) years after the vinyl urethane pealed away.
For those looking to save money, we must caution that the reflective tapes sold in most home repair and automotive stores should be avoided because they usually lack adhesion, reflectivity and durability. Many less costly reflective tapes lack effective levels of all three qualities, and some are also inflexible and will not adhere to curved surfaces.
Some assert that cheaper automotive tape is better than SOLAS-grade tape at reflecting radar signals, and they are correct up to a point. A test by Practical Sailor found that the 3M Scotch reflective tape sold in hardware stores did provide some additional radar reflectivity, but no tape did much better than strips of aluminum foil glued to a foam board. In other words, reflective tape is not designed to reflect radar signals. If radar reflectivity is a high priority, then we suggest you consider purchasing a Search and Rescue Transponder instead.
High-grade SOLAS tape is excellent at what it does best — helping rescuers find you in the dark. For this reason, we suggest you bite the bullet and spend the extra money the 3M tape costs. But if you insist on something less costly, we have also had good luck with most SOLAS-grade tapes that use the same type of hexagonal construction as the Scotchlite Reflective.
We haven’t had the chance yet to test other SOLAS-grade tapes in a controlled lab, but experience has taught us that SOLAS tape that does not use hexagonal cuts (see picture) is not as reflective and has, like inexpensive automotive tape, a slightly greater tendency to peel off from surfaces, especially flexible surfaces.
While all SOLAS-approved tapes meet strict testing standards, we feel the best is 3M’s SOLAS Grade Scotchlite Reflective Tape. You can feel safe using any SOLAS-grade tape, but our favorite is the kind with the tiny hexagonal shapes found on tape by 3M, UST and other brands.
P.S. The tape also works great at illuminating children’s bicycles, helmets and skateboards!