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A message in a bottle that traveled 3,200 miles helped heal a Maryland boy’s grief

The message in a bottle that Irish couple Ciaran Marron and Rita Simmonds found in early January while vacationing in Donegal, Ireland. It was tossed in the waters of Ocean City in 2019 by a Maryland boy with the help of his friend, who died last year. (Rita Simmonds)

Sasha Yonyak had nearly forgotten about the message in a bottle that he had tossed off the side of a fishing boat in Ocean City, Md., in the summer of 2019. The 14-year-old figured it was gone for good.

But several years after Sasha set the bottle adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, an Irish couple more than 3,000 miles away marveled at it.

Ciaran Marron and Rita Simmonds, who live in Belfast, were vacationing in Donegal in northwestern Ireland a few weeks ago. They were walking along the beach on Jan. 5 when they spotted a glass bottle washed up on the shore.

“We knew as soon as we found it that it was going to take us on an adventure,” said Simmonds, 69.

They resisted the urge to unravel the dampened documents from inside the bottle to avoid any damage. Right away, though, they could tell there was a handwritten note, coupled with two $1 bills. They were intrigued.

After letting the message dry overnight in the bottle by their fireplace, the couple opened the scroll and learned the letter had been penned by an 11-year-old boy named Sasha from Maryland. In the note, he told the recipient about himself — including where he lives, his favorite hobbies and the names of his three buddies: “Stone, Lisa and Wayne.”

“I love boogie boarding, fishing and much more,” he wrote, adding “I love riding bikes. I am really active person.” He left a phone number and finished the letter with an earnest plea: “Please please call.”

“His letter was simple but beautiful,” said Marron, 64.

He and his wife excitedly phoned the provided number. They were disappointed to learn it was no longer in service. Still, “we were determined to find him,” Simmonds said. “It was just such a magical thing to find his message. We knew he had to know it landed safely and so far away.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” echoed her husband, who said that finding the bottle proves that “the world is a small place.”

The letter only specified the boy’s first name and location, so the couple had little information to work with. They reached out to an Ocean City newspaper, hoping someone might recognize the bottle or the name. Lucky for them, a local reporter’s friend happened to know Sasha’s parents, whom they connected with on Facebook on Jan. 14.

Hearing that his son’s message in a bottle had been found several years later in Ireland “was very surprising for me,” said Vlad Yonyak, 45.

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The resurfaced bottle was more than merely a happy discovery, he explained in a phone interview with The Washington Post. It served as a salve amid an otherwise difficult time for the Yonyak family.

Sasha first found the bottle with his neighbor, Wayne Smith, at Bahia Marina on the bay in Ocean City. Sasha and Smith spent a lot of time together, his father said, and despite their five-decade age difference, they had many things in common, including an affinity for fishing.

The bottle that Sasha and Smith originally plucked out of the water contained two $1 bills and a note from two American women, whom they were not able to track down. The letter urged the finder to “pass it on.”

So “we decided to do that,” said Sasha.

He went home and wrote a note, which included the same “pass it on” directive. He sealed the letter in kitchen plastic wrap before placing it in the bottle with the pair of $1 bills and closing the cap tightly. Two weeks later, he and Smith, then 62, threw it off the side of a boat together during a fishing excursion one mile off the shore of Ocean City.

“We predicted it would go to the gulf stream,” Sasha said, adding that the last place they expected it to turn up was in Ireland. When he recently learned how far the bottle had drifted, “I was excited,” he said.

Sasha was particularly moved by the discovery because Smith, who lived next door to him, died in August at age 64 — a loss Sasha and his family are still grappling with.

For Sasha, the bottle’s reappearance is a sentimental symbol of his neighbor and friend, whom he mentioned in his letter as one of his buddies, and whose phone number he included — which is why it was disconnected when Marron and Simmonds tried to call.

“He spent a lot of time with Sasha,” Yonyak, who has three children, said of Smith. “They became very good friends.” Finding and subsequently sending out the bottle, he said, was a bonding experience for them. Now it has finally come full circle.

For the Irish couple, knowing the poignant backstory behind the bottle made their unexpected finding even more meaningful, they said.

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“He was still grieving, and this brought back fond memories,” Simmonds said. “We think somehow Wayne had a part in bringing us all together.”

Sasha and his family agreed. “This bottle reflects the friendship of Mr. Wayne and Sasha,” Yonyak said. “Mr. Wayne is no longer with us, but what he did with Sasha is. His deeds are living.”

Plus, he said, while the bottle represents a past friendship, it also symbolizes the start of a new one. “I wish they lived next to us like Mr. Wayne,” Yonyak said of Marron and Simmonds.

He and his family have been communicating regularly with the couple over the phone, and they are hoping to plan a trip to Ireland to see where the bottle landed and meet its finders.

Until then, Marron and Simmonds are holding onto the bottle. Their wish is to write their own note with the same “pass it on” instruction. When Sasha one day makes his way to Ireland, they’ll leave the bottle on the beach where they found it, with their new friend by their side.

“That little bottle was bobbing up and down in storms and darkness in the ocean until it landed safely on a sunny beach,” Simmonds said. “This is a story of hope.”

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