No more swashbucklin': Capt. Atwell transitions back from pirate to fisherman, his first love

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

His swashbuckling days are over and the only treasure he’s looking to find now is fun times fishing aboard his new charter boat, the Reel Grace.  

Capt. Cliff Atwell, who was Capt. Cannonball aboard the Buccaneer pirate ship for nine years in Destin, is back fishing. 

Capt. Cliff Atwell of the Reel Grace charter boat at HarborWalk Marina.

“I always in my mind wanted to come back and go fishing. I love fishing,” said the 56-year-old captain. “What I love more than the fishing is I love to take people, especially the families out that have never caught fish before. I like to see them catch fish and enjoy themselves. That's the part I’ve always enjoyed is watching people catch fish that aren’t expecting to catch anything.

“I’ve always loved watching people do that … that's always been in my heart,” he said. 

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From the time he was 15 years old, Atwell knew he was going to be a captain. 

“I just didn’t know at what capacity or where,” he said. “Fishing is in my blood. I grew up on these docks ... it’s in my blood.”

Captain of the Buccaneer 

Atwell said he enjoyed working over the years for Capt. Steve and Wendy Wilson, owners of the Southern Star dolphin cruise boat and the Buccaneer. 

He came on as part time aboard the dolphin cruise, then later full time before taking over as Capt. Cannonball of the Buccaneer. 

Cliff Atwell is pictured in his Capt. Cannonball persona as commander of the Buccaneer Pirate Ship in Destin.

“It was a season in my life that I enjoyed, but I’m at a point in my life where I just want to come enjoy taking people fishing without a big crowd,” Atwell said. 

“It was a lot of fun to be a pirate, I won't deny that at all. It was fun dressing as a pirate,” he said, although he didn’t want to at first. 

Capt. Cannonball poses with Sonia Muthuveeran, Adela Trevino, Alina Muthuveeran, 3, and Marlon Muthuveeran aboard the Buccaneer Pirate Ship in Destin.

But after a little coaxing from Steve Wilson, he did it. 

“I had a lot of fun the years that I did it, and I don’t regret it one bit,” he said. 

The back story 

Atwell got his start as a teenager on the docks working aboard charter boats. He worked as a mate for Capt. Dale Beebe and then later ran the Tritan for Malcolm Patterson.  

He also had his own boat, then went back to work for Beebe, then on to party boats, which are multi-passenger boats. 

The Reel Grace, docked at HarborWalk Marina, has all the comfort of a yacht but the makings of a good charter fishing boat, Capt. Cliff Atwell says.

“But I’m at a point in my life now where I don’t want to be around multi-passengers, I want a nice little group of people that I can take fishing and enjoy just the fishing part of it,” he said. 

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The party boats would carry 45 to 60 people fishing, the dolphin cruise boat and pirate ship carried more than 100 people. 

“So, I’m trying to get away from all the pressures of a lot of people. I’ve been on multiple passenger vessels my whole life … I just want a small crowd,” Atwell said. 

Captain of the Reel Grace 

The Reel Grace is a 48-foot Pacemaker six-passenger boat that Atwell got in Alabama. The charter boat is now docked at HarborWalk Marina.

He first saw the boat in July 2020, but found out it was under contract. So, he began looking elsewhere from North Carolina to Fort Myers. He actually had contracts on two boats, before “God slammed the door.” 

Then he found another boat in Punta Gorda and was ready to buy when they found some issues with the boat. At that point, Atwell was second guessing if he was going to find his boat. 

However, his wife Nicole encouraged him. 

“We will find our boat … you just got to have faith,” she said. 

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While he was still in Punta Gorda, he searched online and found that the original boat he wanted in Alabama didn’t sell and was back on the market. 

He immediately called the guy and said, “Don’t sell it, I’m on my way to buy it. That’s how I got my boat. 

“So, this boat was meant for me,” Atwell said. 

He got the boat to Destin on March 28 and fished his first trip April 2 and has been fishing ever since. 

As for the name, Reel Grace, Atwell says it has a double meaning. His daughter’s middle name is Grace, plus “I figured the grace of God got me to where I am.” 

And the Reel Grace has all the amenities — fully air-conditioned, two bathrooms and a small galley. 

“It’s got all the comforts of a yacht, but the utility use of a charter boat,” Atwell said. 

Anglers are already getting in on some of the action aboard the Reel Grace.

What kind of fishing will he do aboard the vessel? 

"I will target whatever they want to target, but what I like to do is take them fishing for whatever I know is biting,” he said. “I want to make sure they come back to the dock and they had some fun and they’ve had a rod and reel in their hand and they’ve caught some fish. 

“I don’t ever want anybody to step off my boat and say all we did was ride around and we never got to hold a rod or catch a fish,” he added. 

Atwell will do anything from a four-hour to a 12-hour trip, but prefers the shorter trips with families and small groups in order to introduce them to “having some fun fishing.” 

However, he did say he will accommodate the customers who like to do those 10-to-12-hour trips. 

After nine years as a pirate, Capt. Cliff Atwell is glad to be back fishing aboard his own boat, the Reel Grace.

Memorable catches over the years 

In his younger years, Atwell said he did a lot of marlin fishing with his brother Bob and all those are memorable. 

But he says there are two caches out of Destin that he’ll never forget. 

The first was while he was working aboard the Pescador with Capt. Dick Rosen and Cliff Cox. It was the first blue marlin he had ever caught, a 476-pounder. Cox had said he wired it and they put the flying gaff in it. Cox had told him to reach over and grab the bill. When he did, the marlin smashed his hand against the boat and smashed one of his fingers and thumb. 

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“But I didn’t feel it because I was so excited,” Atwell said, noting he was 14 at the time. 

The second memorable catch was a 303-pound Warsaw grouper again with Rosen and Cox. 

“I can still recall that fish, exactly what happened from the time that fish bit, until we got it in the boat to this day,” Atwell said. 

A favorable journey 

Atwell considers himself blessed to have his two sons, Austin and CJ, help out on the deck. 

“I purposely didn’t coax them into fishing … they just came by it naturally. I knew when I grew up here it was a hard life. But it’s something you don’t ever get out of your blood,” Atwell said. 

Even as a pirate, Atwell said people would ask all the time if he missed fishing. He would say “yes,” but not some of the headaches. 

Atwell said they bought the boat for their family, to charter and to have a business, and to be able to make his own decisions. 

Capt. Cliff Atwell has been fishing out of Destin since he was a teenager. After stepping away from fishing for about 15 or more years, he's back and on his own boat the Reel Grace.

“I’ve worked for several people and I don’t regret any job I’ve had here,” he said. 

But it was time to take a different route. 

So far, Atwell has been averaging about two to three trips a week, during this lull-time before summer kicks in. 

But friends, like Mike Eller, have sent him trips. 

“I’m very fortunate to have friends in the business that have sent me trips. I’ve been recommended by several people,” he said. 

An angler shows off one of the many Spanish mackerel caught on a recent trip aboard the Reel Grace with Capt. Cliff Atwell.

He mentioned that Allen and Dede Phillips of the Blanchita blessed him with a few rods and reels as well as Bob Welniak giving him tackle as well. 

“I have had people bless me, seeing the transition I was trying to make," Atwell said. "I can’t deny that this is where I'm supposed to be. It’s crazy how it all fell into place. 

“Looking back at it, I was meant to do this again,” he added.