An American teenager is on the trip of a lifetime in Donegal charting the incredible journey of his message in a bottle.

Three years ago, Sasha Yonyak tossed a bottle out to sea from Maryland in the US. Inside it was a letter and two dollar notes. Little did he know it would end up on a far-flung beach in Donegal, 3,200 miles away, and be discovered by two walkers who believe in magic.

Belfast couple Rita Simmonds and Ciaran Marron were on a New Year’s Walk on Magheraroarty Beach on the north coast of Donegal when they spotted the bottle in the sand.

Rita and Ciaran dried out the bottle to avoid ripping the letter

When they unravelled the note, they also unravelled the mystery of its origins. Soon afterwards they made contact with Sasha and made a pen-pal for life.

Sasha and his father Vlad touched down in Ireland on Thursday on their dream holiday to visit the site where the bottle was found.

“I forgot about it after I threw it in the water,” Sasha said. “I thought it would go to the Gulf Stream or even China.”

Message in a Bottle: Sasha Yonyak (14) reunited with his bottle in Donegal. Photo Rachel McLaughlin

When he heard the bottle had landed in Ireland, Sasha’s father saw it as a sign that would connect them to a new country and to new people.

As their Donegal adventures got underway this week, Vlad said: “This is for Sasha, and I am happy to see him happy in this beautiful place”

Sasha’s trip to Ireland is tinged with sadness too because there is one person who would have been so excited to know where the bottle ended up. Growing up in the resort of Ocean City, Sasha spent a lot of time with his neighbour, Wayne Smith. Wayne, a grandfather aged in his 60s, loved the ocean and one of his greatest joys in life was teaching a child how to fish. 

Sasha had been out fishing with Wayne one day when they discovered their own message in a bottle. Inside was two dollars and a note from two American women asking the finder to ‘pass it on’. That was the inspiration for Sasha and Wayne’s bottle, which was actually a recycled hot sauce container.

Wayne passed away in August 2021 at the age of 64, never knowing what became of his project with young Sasha.

The glass bottle that travelled 3,200 miles across the Atlantic. Photo Rachel McLaughlin

Ciaran said it is a “miracle” that the glass bottle drifted so far and landed in Ireland intact. The contents were drenched, but as soon as they found it, Ciaran and Rita painstakingly dried the note and the dollars before unfurling them.

“We had to be patient and wait a whole day for the letter to dry out,” Rita said. “Otherwise we could have torn it.”

Sasha had taken the initiative to write the note in pencil so it would outlast the condensation. In his letter, the then-11-year-old talked about his hobbies, family, his friendship with Wayne, Wayne’s wife Lisa and their dog ‘Stone’. 

Wayne, Sasha and Stoney the dog

The only contact number on the letter was Wayne’s former homeplace. When Rita and Ciaran called, it was disconnected. The couple embarked on a search via local media in Donegal and in Maryland to connect with Sasha. They knew there was something special at play.

“We decided right away that we were going to try and find him. It took six days, which is a long time in today’s world with the internet at our fingertips,” Ciaran said. “I am very into quantum physics. It’s all connected, it’s amazing.”

Ciaran Marron, Sasha Yonyak and Rita Simmonds meet in Donegal

The search went worldwide, and eventually, it reached Sasha’s father, who was keen to build a connection with their new friends in Ireland.

A GoFundMe appeal by Vlad and lots of careful planning over Facebook brought young Sasha, Rita and Ciaran together for a special celebration on Magheraroarty beach on Friday, ten months after the discovery.

“This trip is like a tribute to the friendship of Sasha and Wayne,” Vlad said.

Sasha and his father Vlad Yonyak in Donegal

Visiting Magheraroarty brought back memories of Sasha’s fisherman friend, and the group have created a new message in a bottle they hope to throw out to sea soon when the tides are right. Inside, they have the same two dollars and their own special note. 

Rita adds: “We are very conscious that we are visiting Donegal just after the Creeslough explosion. It was such a random, terrible tragedy. Our story is a random, good event. It is a story of hope. Grief is involved here too and I think this is a beautiful tribute.”