The answer is that all of these options can work, and have for thousands of paddlers. Learning on your own can be tricky, and you’ll probably make every mistake in the book before you get comfortable, but it certainly is a viable option.
Just make sure you’re in reasonable aerobic condition, have a modest amount of smarts and common sense, and are willing to be patient. A good kayaking instructor, on the other hand, can make the whole process much easier and safer. And it doesn’t have to be a formal instructor from a paddling shop or business.
If you have friends or family who are experienced paddlers, consider asking them for some informal instruction. Just let them know that you’re just starting out, and that you’ll need a lot of patience and understanding for the first few excursions. If you have access to a pool that allows kayaks in the water, this can provide a great way to get some initial training, especially in getting your roll mechanics down.
If you don’t know any experienced paddlers, consider joining a local kayak club in your area. These clubs and organizations can be great resources for all kinds of paddling information, tours, instruction, and networking. You may even find someone in the club who’s a certified instructor or who’s willing to help a newbie get their feet (and all their other parts) wet.
And then, of course, there’s the option of finding a certified kayaking instructor. Ask to see the person’s resume, and any certifications and formal training he or she’s had. And before you whip out your checkbook, ask to see your perspective instructor on the water.
Does he or she seem skilled and confident when handling their kayak? Does their equipment look to be well maintained? Do they explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it?
Most of all, how does this person come across? Do they appear to be patient and approachable? Do they answer your questions quickly and with confidence? Is this someone who makes you feel comfortable? Without a good rapport, after all, it’s almost impossible to get the most out of any instruction, paddling or otherwise.
In the end, the best approach to learning how to kayak is up to you. If you feel comfortable learning on your own, go for it. Just make sure to take your time and always think safety first. If you decide to go with an instructor, take the time to choose wisely, and get the most for your training dollars.