How Sea Hearts Deal with Fear: Tara Ruttenberg


Sea Hearts, meet Tara.

Tara Ruttenberg is one of those Sea Hearts who’s carved a life out of her dedication to the sea. She’s a writer, free surfer, and PhD candidate in development studies. She’s found a way to connect her passion for surfeminism, sustainable surf tourism, sustainability, and promoting well-being economics to lead a life in harmony with herself and nature.

Tara created Tarantula Surf ( as a platform for authentic sharing and engaging with new social paradigms for a more beautiful world. A nomad by nature, she lives most of the time at the beach in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica.

Buttttt we thought you’d love to hear Tara’s take on fear because she charges. From triple overhead surf at Sultan’s in the Maldives to the beachies of Costa Rica to the outer islands of Dakar, Senegal, Tara has taught herself to fearless while respecting herself and her boundaries in the ocean. She epitomizes the Sea Hearts Surf Club philosophy and shares some really great antidotes that everyone can relate to.

So let’s talk fear and story with Tara!


Tell us a little bit about where you live and where you surf? What’s your homebreak like?

While I live a mostly nomadic lifestyle, chasing waves, work, purpose and passion, I have lived for the past 13 years in Costa Rica. I feel blessed to call the surfscapes of Santa Teresa my home. And while I don't consider it my ‘homebreak’ since I am not from there, I love to surf the right-hander that breaks off the rocks at my favorite beachbreak north of town, just steps from where I sleep. It can get crowded with visiting tourists in the summer months, but it’s super consistent and delivers a peeling right that gets hollow on a lower tide with some clean and racey sections to practice my frontside turns. Just thinking about it makes me want to paddle out right now!  

Tara showing she’s got skills on the shorty.

Tara showing she’s got skills on the shorty.

When did you learn to surf?  How long did it take you to transition to riding a shortboard?

My favorite memories as a young girl always involve warm summer days at the beach. My sister and I would spend entire days playing in the waves along the Southern California shores, usually in Malibu since I grew up just inland from there. Our parents would always take us to the beach in the Ruttlebus, our family camper van, where my dad jokes that we were potty trained in the little toilet in back, since we were always on some fun adventure in that van. My parents aren't surfers, though, so I didn't start surfing until 2007, after 6 months living in Costa Rica when I was 19. After watching the boys give surf lessons everyday on the beach, a friend helped me pick out a 7'4" fun shape and I made a commitment to myself to paddle out every single day for 2 months straight. It was an uphill battle, but I was determined. In 3 months I switched to a 6'6" shaped by Carton, a local Costa Rican shaper, and have since built my entire life around surfing. 11 years later, I mostly ride a 5'6" round tail performance thruster, and my floaty 5'5" egg funboard on the smaller days. 

Tell us about some of the biggest surf you’ve ever experienced. Where was it and how big was it?

The first huge wave I remember riding was at Ngor rights off the island in Dakar, Senegal in October 2011.

We paddled like 45 minutes to get there, and it was way bigger than I was ready for, but I told myself I wouldn't leave until I at least tried to drop into one of them. And as luck and determination would have it, that's exactly what I did. I just remember feeling like I was dropping into that thing for what felt like ages, and I just held my line and surfed it as best I could, all the way into the channel. I'll never forget that. 

Since then, I've regularly paddled out on some of the bigger days at exposed beach breaks in Costa Rica, and at some of the best reef and pointbreaks in the world when the swells were big. When I can quiet my own anxiety, I just love the feeling of being that connected to all that energy pulsing around me, and the silence among the sea you don't always find when it's smaller. There's a certain reverence, a shared respect out there that touches on the sublime. 

I think the biggest wave I've ever surfed was at Sultans in the Maldives, nearly triple overhead. With photos to prove it. :) 

Tara going XXL at Sultan's

How do you decide whether the surf is too big or dangerous for you?  What is your limit? 

To be honest, it depends on the day - my energy level, how fit I'm feeling, where I'm at in my moon cycle. But when I'm feeling good and ready to charge, I'll watch it for a while before paddling out.

I usually go with my gut feeling - it's a yes or a no. I'll ask myself, "am I scared?" (yes or no.) "can I do this?" (yes or no.) "do I want to?" (yes or no). Sometimes those conversations are really challenging, because I want to push myself and face my fears even when my body is telling me otherwise.

But I'm learning to listen to my intuition and know myself and my own possibilities and true limitations. My limit changes everyday and it feels healthiest to me that way. That said, I watch the women on the XXL tour and get the chills. There is no way in hell I'd paddle out in those conditions. Serious respect, chicas! 


Do you have any special tactics or practices you use to deal with fear while you surf?  (i.e. meditation, visualization, physical training)

Yes! I feel most confident when I'm in good shape - surfing most days, and complementary non-surf training like cardio and yoga. I also have been dealing with anxiety in the water and on land, and Kava in low doses is a natural medicine that has helped me so much to take the anxious edge off, to trust myself beyond the fear, and help me get back to the fun of surfing, even when i'm pushing my comfort zone.

Before I paddle out, I wrap myself in an imaginary protective bubble of white light, and tell myself "just have fun!" And if I'm really scared, I just say "just one wave and see how you feel. you can always come in if you aren't having fun."

Giving myself the permission to be scared, to have fun and to make decisions without forcing it either way. 


Tell us about your scariest experience in the ocean.  Where were you? What happened?

Deep breath. Because I've definitely had a few. I broke my nose surfing at an off-the-beaten-path spot in Colombia, a 2 hour boat ride from the hostel I was staying at, and another 2 hour boat ride to the nearest town with a small clinic, and a 1 hour flight from there to the hospital. It was a head-high day and I had already surfed a 2 hour session. After lunch on the boat I was tired but was getting sea sick so I decided to paddle back out, even though my body was exhausted. I hesitated and pulled back from paddling into a wave and let my board go over the falls. My leash got tight and the board snapped back at me. Before I could get my hands up, I saw the nose of the board coming straight at me and it got me right between the eyes at the top of my nose. I was hoping it was just superficial so I could keep surfing, but then the blood was gushing and I was worried about sharks, so I knew it was more serious than I had hoped. I was with 4 Colombian guys I didn't know before that trip, and while I'm sure they were bummed that my injury cut the afternoon session a little short, they were so sweet and helped take care of me when I was totally freaked out and on my own. I remember crying, not from the pain of the injury, but from the gratitude I felt for those guys, and the beauty of the jungle and ocean around me. Long story short, it was a trek to get back from there and I didn't get to the hospital in Medellin in time for them to re-set my nose, so now I have a deviated septum and a crooked little nose to remember that day forever. :) 

Another scary day was in the south of Costa Rica at a rocky right point break when it was big and crowded and I was scared and it was getting dark and shallower by the second. And I just kept telling myself to just take one and get out of there. My boyfriend at the time was already waiting on shore and I knew he was getting nervous. Well into dusk, I finally dropped into one but didn't make the first section and fell right where the sketchiest rock section was. I found my board and took a long set on the head, pushing me closer to the rocks. I was definitely in panic mode by then and was gasping for breath between waves and long hold downs. I was convinced I was going to drown. I somehow got closer to the inside and out of the impact zone and just bellyboarded the whitewater until it dropped me a mile or so down into the bay. I walked back in the dark, super shaky and upset, but happy I didn't drown. The next part was even sketchier - walking back 2 miles to our camp site in the jungle at night in the pitch black... all I could think about were the poisonous snakes! Luckily, halfway down the jungle path I ran into a friend who drove me the rest of the way. My boyfriend had no idea what had happened to me - needless to say it was en emotional moment! 


What did you do to overcome that specific experience?  How did overcome the memory? 

In the story when I broke my nose, I was out of the water for a month waiting for my bones to get solid enough to paddle out again. I was just really excited to get back in the water at that point and had been training on land in the meantime.  One of my first sessions back was a big Christmas swell and I remember just being so happy to be out at the beach break there and catching some amazing waves in powerful conditions.

I've never overcome the memory. I just didn't let it stop me from doing what I love the most. What I learned was how to listen to my body and my intuition. Now if I'm not 100% into paddling out, or my body is exhausted, I stay in. 

In the story in southern Costa Rica, I didn't surf the next day since the swell was peaking and I wasn't ready to get back out there yet. I was super shaken-up since that was the first time I really thought I was going to drown. The following day I took it easy and began building up my confidence. It was definitely a lesson in learning about my limits and taking care of myself, not pushing myself too far beyond my comfort zone to the point of possible trauma. And to not be too hard-headed to paddle in if the conditions are beyond what I'm comfortable with.

Tara’s got lofty goals, but she’s mastered the bottom turn.

Tara’s got lofty goals, but she’s mastered the bottom turn.

What are your current goals?   

To get my ocean-inspired poetry book published this year! And to work with inspired women surfers around the world to create the book project I've been working on called Women's Surf Stories. I'm also working on my PhD in sustainable surf tourism and plan to finish in 2020. I have a surf + yoga + writing retreat coming up in March that I'm excited to be hosting in Costa Rica! Details are on my website.

My surfing goals are to have fun, connect with and inspired more women in the waves, and to continue living in walking distance from the surf! 

What is the greatest lesson (or meaning) surfing has taught you?


Surfing has taught me how to live in the flow of life - to celebrate the highs and weather the lows - to grow comfortable with silence as a way of calibrating my biorhythms to nature, to listen to the profound intuition of my wild woman nature, and to know that everything is perfectly uncertain, unpredictable, transient and absolutely beautiful. Surfing has taught me to say yes to the waves that come my way, finding the inner confidence and strength to surf each moment as it comes.  

How can we find you?

My story-sharing website and professional creative platform: 

Instagram: @tarantulasurf


Tara is hosting Immersion 2019: Surf + Yoga + Writing Retreat for women in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, March 5-10, 2019. 7 spots available, contact her for details and to reserve your space. 

She is also receiving submissions for Women's Surf Stories: A Collection of Perspectives and Possibilities, which will feature stories, poetry and art from women surfers around the world that speak to issues of women's empowerment and surfeminism. Please send a 200-word summary of your submission to