Drowning is an important public health issue with major impacts on young adults aged 15-24 years, yet little is known about the causal factors for drowning for this group. As young adults recreate with peers in unpatrolled aquatic environments, the capacity to perform effective and efficient rescues seems pivotal. This study examined perceived ability of young adults to perform a rescue; determined the level of aquatic rescue knowledge; and measured the effect of an aquatic rescue intervention. In total, 135 participants completed pre- and post-intervention surveys and rescue practical testing. Wilcoxon matched pairs signed rank tests were used to assess significant differences pre- and post-intervention and Mann-Whitney tests used to compare groups. Pre-intervention, participants had a low level of rescue knowledge (Mdn = 50) and the relationship between perceived rescue ability and practical rescue testing was weak (rs = 0.33, p ≤ 0.001). Post-intervention, ability to perform a contact tow demonstrated significant improvement (z = – 9.09, p < 0.001, r = – 0.79) and rescue knowledge also improved significantly (Mdn = 100, z = – 9.42, p < 0.001, r = – 0.81). Many young adults lacked both the physical capacity and knowledge required to safely perform a rescue, a factor that may place them at increased drowning risk if they attempt an aquatic rescue. As a rescue based intervention can significantly improve competency of young adults regardless of previous experience and/or qualifications, research needs to consider how best these competencies can be promoted and/or developed with this high risk group.