OBJECTIVE: To document patterns of water exposure at surf beaches by gender and identify factors that predict bather confidence to return to shore if caught in a rip current. METHOD: Recreational surf beach bathers (N=406) provided self-completed data on water exposure patterns, surf activity behaviours and potential drowning risk and protective factors. RESULTS: Relative to females, males visited surf beaches more frequently, expected to spend longer in the water and in deeper water, and more often bathed after using alcohol (p<0.05). Confidence to return to shore if caught in a rip current was predicted by confidence to identify a rip current, self-rated swimming ability, gender, times visited any beach, and age in a standard linear regression model (adjusted R(2)=0.68). CONCLUSION: The study supports explanations that high male drowning rates result from more frequent exposure to water than females at high situational risk levels. IMPLICATIONS: Controlled studies are required to determine the role in drowning of overconfidence, swimming ability, surf experience, floatation .