The water off Cove Point felt calm at first.
Jason Brown’s father, Daniel Brown, and uncle, Doug Brown, hadn’t hesitated to strip off their shirts and leap into the chilly Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland on Friday evening, the 17-year-old would say later. Jason eventually waded in, splashing and joking as the trio had so many times before. They chucked seashells at each other and peered at a cruise ship passing Lusby.
Then the waves picked up, and the current strengthened. Suddenly, their toes lost touch with the sand.
“Let’s get back,” Doug said, his tone serious. The 39-year-old tried to paddle toward shore, but he made little progress. He began to drift away. Jason turned back to Daniel.
“Dad, are you okay?”
“No,” he replied.
All three started yelling at Daniel’s girlfriend, who was searching the beach for sea glass and sharks’ teeth. She couldn’t hear them. Jason urged his dad to keep treading. The teenager gripped his father’s arms, but his 250-pound frame was too heavy to pull.
“Dad, we’ve got to swim,” Jason remembers shouting at him. “We can’t stay out here.”
The 37-year-old’s head bobbed in and out of the bay. He told his son to leave him.
“I love you,” his father said, then disappeared into the dark blue water.
His uncle was gone, too.
Jason, who plays soccer and runs cross-country, couldn’t overcome the current head-on, so he swam to the beach at an angle. He sprinted toward his father’s girlfriend, who for a moment thought that Jason was playing a prank.
He searched the beach for a rope or a boogie board but found nothing. He ran to his father’s home and looked for a neighbor.
“Just somebody,” he said. “Anybody to help.”
By the time Jason returned to the water, he heard sirens and saw flickering police lights. A helicopter zipped overhead.
At the spot where their shirts had been left on the sand, Jason collapsed.
Authorities found Daniel’s body Saturday and Doug’s Monday afternoon.
Both high school dropouts, the men were self-made successes, known among friends and family for their big personalities and even larger ambitions.
Doug was part-owner of Costa Brava, a tapas restaurant in the Bloomingdale area of the District.
Daniel was a serial entrepreneur, dealing in real estate and operating businesses including a home improvement company and a car detailing shop. But he also ran into trouble, serving a stint in prison after a bad business deal.
“It made him tougher,” said his father, Douglas Brown Sr.
Throughout, the brothers were best friends.
“Those guys fed off of each other,” said Melissa Brown, Daniel’s ex-wife and Jason’s mother. “If you got them in a room together, nobody was getting a word in.”
They shared a bevy of inside jokes and finished one another’s sentences, but they were also intensely competitive, whether on the basketball court or debating who was their mother’s favorite son.
Doug liked the city, Ethiopian food and top-shelf bourbon. Daniel preferred the country, burgers and a beer. Doug liked to relax when he finished work. Neither Daniel nor his phone ever stopped buzzing.
Douglas Sr. will miss watching PBS’s “Masterpiece” mystery series with Doug, his “cool” son who would proudly introduce him to his metropolitan friends. So, too, he’ll miss the 3 a.m. meals at IHOP with Daniel and his younger boy’s random phone calls to say little more than hello.
“Everybody has a purpose, and right now my purpose is to be strong,” Douglas Sr. said Monday afternoon, as he drove to a Calvert County marina to identify his older son’s body.
The men’s disappearance so devastated their mother, Anne James, that she was hospitalized Friday night. They were her only biological children.
Doug’s son, Joshua Holton, learned of the news that afternoon. He had received a text from Melissa: “Call please 911.”
Holton, 19, was at his job in Tennessee, where he lives with his mother. As an adult, he and Doug were more buddies than anything else. He had helped his father build Costa Brava: painting, making the bar, the stone on the wall. The two talked often when they were apart, mostly about their favorite TV shows, “Hannibal” and “True Detective.”
For graduation, Doug had bought him a phoenix tattoo on his left arm. About a year ago, his father got a duplicate on his right arm so that when they stood side by the side the pair would match.
Holton flew back on Saturday, but even then he didn’t believe his father was gone. It didn’t feel real until he saw his belongings in a solitary pile: his bag, keys, wallet.
Daniel Brown left behind three children, his family said. Much of his Facebook page is devoted to Jason and his 15-year-old daughter Allison. One video shows Jason, shorts on his head, waving around a metal rod. “Pants head the new super hero,” Daniel captioned it. Another shows his daughter belting out Miley Cyrus’s “He Could Be the One.” Daniel shakes his head.
On the day before he drowned, he had taken his daughter out on the boat after her volleyball practice. “Night fishing with my bestie lol,” he wrote next to a selfie.
Everyone who knew Daniel and Doug saw both of them in Jason: the drive, the wit, the determination to win every game of “Call of Duty.”
Before their swim Friday, father and son had driven in Daniel’s Jeep to pick up Doug from the District. On the way back, they rode with the top down and the music blasting, mostly Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. All three knew every word.
The brothers were excited for a dinner they had planned Saturday night at a Japanese steakhouse. The whole family was going to attend. They were supposed to celebrate Jason’s 17th birthday.
Martin Weil and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.