Skip to main content
Original Issue

Queen Of The Surf

Frieda Zamba has come off Florida's diminutive waves to win three straight big titles

Without warning, in the summer of 1982 a frightened teenager named Frieda Zamba flew out of tiny Flagler Beach, Fla., with her little Florida surfboards and her outrageous Florida bag of tricks and descended upon unsuspecting California like a simmering tropical storm disguised as a slight breeze. Hurricane Zamba. Too small to be picked up by West Coast radar until it was too late to stop her.

The world's top professional women surfers were gathered at Solana Beach, awaiting the start of the Mazda Surf Sports event. Most of them were California girls—smiling their confident California smiles, singing their smug California surf songs, riding their big California boards on their big California waves and attentive to their grace and femininity in their California way.

All of which made them sitting ducks for the 17-year-old Zamba, an unknown from a surfing nowhereland. The West Coast had always gotten the respect; the East Coast got yawns. But that was B.Z.: Before Zamba.

The rap against Florida was its puny, three-to-four-foot waves, less than half the size of the California and Hawaii and Australia surf the pros regarded as the real thing. Mutt waves. No pedigree. Never showed up in beach-blanket movies. Never produced a world champ. B.Z.

No one at the Mazda suspected that Zamba was about to blow them all away, single-handedly radicalize women's pro surfing and go on to win an incredible three consecutive world championships in 1985, '86 and '87.

At the time, Zamba remembers, she was more worried about her first airplane trip than she was about the contest. When her coach and mentor, Flea Shaw, saw her off at Orlando International Airport, Zamba turned to him and moaned, "I'm going to crash and die and I'm never going to get to do anything fun again."

He laughed at her then. She laughs now. Sitting on the sea-gull-gray carpet in her gray-and-rose Flagler Beach living room, Zamba leans back and rests her wiry 5'3", deeply-tanned, 22-year-old blonde self against her gigantic German shepherd, Max. She scratches Max behind the ears and runs her hand over his gleaming jaws. "My baby," she says. "I've been afraid of the dark since I was a little girl. Max protects me."

Sunlight floods the room. Zamba's three huge world championship trophies and a bunch of small awards overflow the bookshelves and spill over onto the stone hearth. The glass breakfront displays the artifacts from Zamba's June wedding to Flea—FLEA and FRIEDA glasses, FLEA & FRIEDA napkins, a champagne bottle, their china pattern.

Half a block from the house, the Florida miniwaves on which Zamba polished her startling natural skills are waiting for her. They won't have to wait long. Since Zamba discovered surfing in her 12th summer, she has logged so much time in the water, it's a wonder she doesn't breathe through gills.

"As a kid," she says, "I was a real grommet, a little tomboy. Surfing was totally for boys. I was the only girl surfer who really stayed with it. I didn't know what they were doing. I was just going, 'Gosh, that looked hot. I gotta try that.' "

She adopted the boys' high-risk, high-speed, go-for-broke attitude. Like doing skateboard tricks on salt water, she says. Aggressive is a mild word for what Zamba does on, and to, a wave.

Once her board flew out from under, her, then returned like the world's largest boomerang. It hit her less than half an inch from her right eyeball. When she was 13, she tried to shoot the Flagler Beach pier. The pier shot her instead. Smacked her in the head and rearranged her thoughts. Incidents like that scared her, but they didn't stop her.

Feisty is one thing. Fanatic is what she was. Nothing existed for her except the waves. Zen is not big in Flagler Beach, but Zen it was. The entire world in a wave.

By the time Zamba was 16, Flea Shaw knew she was one in a million. He was a pro surfer and custom board shaper who had grown up by the ocean in Ormond Beach, just south of Flagler, spending hours on end, day after day, gazing out to sea, studying wave patterns and currents and weather.

As a child in the mid '50s, he surfed on his father's 14-foot balsa surfboard. Bright pink. No fins. Riding the breakers in from half a mile out, his dad standing behind him while the family boxer, Spook, balanced on the front end.

When he grew up, Shaw surfed the amateur and pro circuits. But in all those years, on all those waves, he never saw a woman like Zamba. He was wiped out by Zamba's radical 360-degree turns, her slashing, torpedolike maneuvers off the foaming lip of the wave, her electrifying aerials, her manic speed and her uncanny ability to squeeze every inch of trick space out of the most mediocre wave before it died.

Shaw started shaping triple-finned boards for her ferocious attacking style, making them fast and ultralight, with concave noses that would help lift the board over mushy parts in a wave instead of pushing water the way conventional convex noses do.

And when Zamba was 17, he shipped her out to face the seasoned West Coast pros at the Mazda, and she clobbered them. "A lot of 'em were real cruisers down the line," Zamba says. "Their whole thing was to surf feminine and really casual. I never liked just standing on a wave and cruising. So I was doing roller coasters, real high-speed surfing, sharp turns and radical maneuvers. They said, 'Gosh, you surf like a man.' "

She was shocked by her victory in her major competition. The papers called her Cinderella Surfer. She flew home, and the shy, small-town girl turned party animal. She would not win an event for another year.

Living away from home for the first time, sleeping six to a cheap-motel room and dining on fried grease, Zamba was introduced to the game of quarters, which was fatal to her surfing. "It was terrible," she says, shamefaced. "You get this glass and you fill it with beer. Then you take a quarter and you flick it, but it's gotta bounce once on the table before it goes into the glass. If it goes in, you pick who drinks the beer. If you miss, you gotta chug it."

She put on weight. She suffered awful mornings after. She finished ninth a lot. She wondered if she would ever win again.

"I was getting really bummed out," Zamba says. "I just had the attitude like I didn't care." Near the end of the tour, she realized she was wasting money—her parents', Shaw's and her own, earned in three years of cooking spaghetti and pizza at Morelli's Mamma Mia in Flagler Beach.

She returned home determined to straighten up and surf right. Shaw started coaching her in earnest, making her swim laps and work out with weights for the first time. He traveled with her on the '84 tour, reading the ocean for her, running up and down the beach, signaling her toward the best waves. The other competitors were stunned. None of them had coaches. Shaw's beach dramatics were as radical as Zamba's surfing style.

"Once Flea started coaching me," Zamba says happily, "we got closer and closer together and we just fell in love." She widens her pale blue eyes in wonder. "I mean, it was like, boing! It's fate. We were meant to be together."

She finished second that year. But in 1985 she beat the reigning champion, California's Kim Mearig, to become the first East Coast woman ever to win the Association of Surfing Professionals world title. It was a triumph of East over West, of aggressive and radical over smooth and feminine.

For Zamba's homecoming the town strung banners that screamed: FLAGLER BEACH: HOME OF FRIEDA ZAMBA, WOMEN'S WORLD SURFING CHAMPION over State Route A1A.

"The whole first week I was home," Zamba says, "I wouldn't go uptown. I was just so embarrassed."

The mayor gave her a key to the city and referred to Flagler Beach as "Zambaland" in his proclamation. Snack Jack, an oceanside raw bar, threw her a "Frieda Did It" beach party.

In the 1986 finals, riding her little 5'7" board on 5-foot waves at Bell's Beach, Australia, she beat Jodie Cooper, an Australian, on the last maneuver on the last wave in the last heat.

"For an hour," says Zamba, "we were fighting wave for wave, maneuver for maneuver. It was so intense all the people on the beach were biting their nails. On my last wave, for my final maneuver, I did a radical off the lip right onto the beach. That's what won it."

Another key to the city, followed by a "Frieda Did It Again" party at Snack Jack. That year she and Shaw announced their engagement and left to earn another party. But in April '87, as Zamba headed into the final contest of another world championship in Australia, the situation did not look good.

Pam Burridge, another Aussie, was ahead on points. To win the world title, she had only to tie Zamba in this contest. "I was worried," Zamba admits. "I'd go, 'Gosh, if I don't win, am I going to want to get married, or be all depressed and bummed out?' "

Burridge, apparently looking ahead to Zamba, was knocked off by an unseeded unknown in an early round: Psyched, stoked and flying high, Zamba won her third world title, then flew home to marry Flea.

"The townsfolk dubbed this 'Flagler's Own Royal Wedding,' " says Zamba's big sister, Renèe, proudly. "Y'know: 'Queen of Surfing Marries Her King.' It was definitely the event of the year."

At the beginning of the ceremony the minister surprised the newly weds by exclaiming, "Surf's up!" The cake was topped with a blond groom holding a blonde bride in his arms, riding a surfboard on a makable wave.

Frieda and Flea honeymooned in Barbados. Surfing.

"Surf, surf, surf," Zamba says, noticing the summer day soften into late afternoon, her favorite time to catch waves. She and Shaw head for the beach together, as always.

An hour later Jan and Albert Zamba are standing by the side of A1 A, watching their daughter and son-in-law play in the surf.

For many years the Zambas have worked together at Marineland—he is operations manager, she is assistant manager of the gift shops. They have witnessed three live dolphin births, and Albert admits to playing porthole hide-and-seek with dolphins Davy and Kipper after hours.

"They have this smile," Albert says.

"They're not like animals at all," says Jan. "They're almost human."

Frieda and Flea emerge from the ocean in the last light of day. "So," Jan asks them, "now that you're married, when are you going to have some little surfers?"

"We're not," Frieda laughs. "Just little surfboards and little dogs."

The next morning Frieda is standing in her driveway, carefully wiping dew-drops off the hood of her low-slung black Mitsubishi Conquest, a car with black leather interior, a black front vanity plate that reads AWESOME! and bands of black tint on the windshield that seem much too dark for a driver to see through.

"It's not about driving," she laughs. "It's about looking good. No, seriously, I can see through it. Really, I can."

Sometimes Zamba worries about being too childlike. Other times she thinks she grew up too fast on the tour, but with five sponsors and more in the wings, she knows she can't afford to fool around.

"Flea and I are both laid-back, private people," she says, caressing the Conquest's hood. "I don't like to go out and get crazy and stuff like that. I don't do drugs. I don't drink. But there's still a kid inside me."

On tour, the adult inside Zamba tries to eat healthy food. But during her off months—the season runs from late July through May—the kid takes over.

"I am addicted to Häagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate chip ice cream," she says, eyes glazing over, speech rapidly gaining momentum. "When I can't get that, I'll take Baskin-Robbins Rocky Road. Oh, and I have cravings for Dairy Queen Blizzards with M & M's and Heath bars in chocolate ice cream. Oh, and those boxes of 16 chocolate mini-donuts? Mmmmmmm. And chocolate turtles? And Snickers bars? It's just terrible, isn't it? It's an obsession. Oh, and Milk Duds. Gotta have my Milk Duds. Oh, and Mars Bars...."

She licks her lips. She calms down. "Sometimes," she says, "it kinda freaks me out, knowing I've been on the tour five years already and how fast the years go by. Seems like yesterday I was just a little kid. I guess I want to hold on to that real young feeling of just starting out."

She finds that feeling most often half a block from her house. "Clear water," she says dreamily. "Blue. Me and Flea out there. Nobody else. All the waves to ourselves. And the sun going down. And it's real warm. I love surfing here. I know the waves aren't the greatest. But it's home. I feel comfortable. Stable.

"I could have a hundred things to do and if the waves are good, forget it. I know people say there's more to life than finding the perfect wave. But I haven't found it yet."



In Sydney, Zamba shared the championship spotlight with men's winner Tom Curren.



At Marineland, where her parents work, Zamba treated a fellow aquatic star.



Flea and Frieda live a seashell's throw from the puny waves where they learned to surf.