With high winds and heavy rains raising water levels statewide, boaters must wear flotation devices and other safety gear to protect themselves or risk drowning, a state official said Tuesday.

At least four incidents over the last two weeks involved boaters and kayakers capsizing due to unsafe conditions, and some were made worse by boaters not wearing life preservers, said Edith Smith, director of information and education at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“A lot of people feel that putting them [flotation devices] beside themselves in a boat is enough, but if you do capsize or tip over, the float device will often float away,” Smith said Tuesday. “It’s not a chance anyone should take.”

“At this time of year, it’s almost a necessity,” said Sgt. Ron Dunham of the Maine Warden Service. “It’s like putting your seat belt on in your vehicle. It’s the only safety device you have at your disposal. People need to take advantage of that.”

“It’s serious business. It’s life and death when you’re in the water.”

The warnings come in the wake of several incidents, including a Troy, N.Y., man being separated from a rafting party on the Kennebec River on Sunday. The man survived 5½-hours’ exposure to the elements because he was wearing a drytsuit. Other incidents include:

• Two men nearly drowning on Lincoln’s Upper Coldstream Pond on May 11 after their boat capsized in the pond’s wind-whipped waters. The men, who were not wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs), were rescued by passers-by who spotted them in the water after the rescuers were telephoned by a Lincoln firefighter.

• An Old Town woman flipping a kayak on the Penobscot River near the Milford dam on May 7 and nearly getting swept away by the current. She was not wearing a PFD but managed to put on the one she had with her in her boat.  Another kayaker assisted in the rescue by coming to her aid and towing her close to other rescuers who pulled them from the river.

• Two people capsizing in a canoe on the Piscataquis River in Howland on May 12 while picking fiddleheads. Both were wearing PFDs, and credited the devices for their survival in the icy water, Smith said.

• Off the coast of Vinalhaven, a distress call alerting the U.S. Coast Guard to four kayakers who became separated in 3- to 6-foot seas and were feared to have capsized on May 7. The Coast Guard found two, while the others were rescued by a nearby fishing boat. The kayakers were wearing flotation devices.

Exposure to cold water can cause shock, loss of limb dexterity, incapacitation and hypothermia, often within minutes. Life preservers buy precious time for capsized boaters and their rescuers, Dunham said in a statement.

“It pays to do it right. Even though it might be cumbersome, it will make the difference,” he said. “You probably only have between five and 10 minutes of ability to save yourself [in cold water]. After that, you don’t even have the strength to hold on. The reality is that rescuers are likely many, many minutes away. Depending on where they are and where you are, they might be hours away.”

Exactly why so many incidents have occurred over the past few weeks is not clear. The rainy, windy weather and long-delayed spring, which has left some water enthusiasts itching to enjoy the outdoors, probably are factors, officials said.

Boating is always hazardous. Coast Guard statistics compiled for the year 2009 show that 2,656 recreational vessels were involved in boating accidents nationwide, resulting in 1,655 injuries and 326 deaths. State officials and boating groups regularly hold safety classes to help boaters stay safe and recreational vessel safety is a regular topic in the Maine news media.

The National Weather Service forecast for the Bangor area predicts little change before the end of the week. It calls for partial rains and some winds until Sunday, when partially sunny skies are predicted.