To determine the postoperative incidence, extent and recurrence rate of exostoses of the external auditory canal in a cohort of patients involved in different water sports. A cross-sectional study of 31 patients (46 ears), with exostoses treated by surgery in the Royal Cornwall Hospital between 1980 and 1999. A questionnaire was used to obtain information about the type of water exposure pre- and postoperatively. The extent of recurrent stenosis was assessed. The mean postoperative time interval was 10 years (sd = 4.5 years). The degree of stenosis was assessed as: minimal (<30%) in 42.6%, moderate (30-60%) in 31% and severe (>60%) in 25% of ears. The Cox regression model was used to identify factors associated with a reduction in the recurrence rate of stenosis. The use of ear plugs was highly significant (P = 0.015), as was the age of the patient at the time of operation (P = 0.004), i.e. the older the patient, the faster recurrent disease developed. There was no evidence to show that either the type or seasonal pattern of water sport activity influenced recurrence of the disease postoperatively, although preoperatively, the stenosis was more marked in association with surfing and sailing. Exostoses developed faster preoperatively in those who were in the water all year round rather than just the summer months. Of five patients who stopped water sport activity completely after surgery, four of them developed significant recurrent exostoses (>50% stenosis).