There are a great many studies that investigate the force on bodies in periodic oscillatory motions, but almost no studies that focus on the kinds of fluid loading that are of great relevance to offshore structure designers; namely, the problem of a cylinder subjected to the forces from ocean wave groups, especially those of large amplitude. In this study, we move a vertical circular cylinder in non-periodic horizontal orbital motion through stationary fluid, in a towing tank at Re≤1.15X104. The motion is chosen to represent the relative fluid motion incident upon a horizontal cylinder with its axis aligned parallel to the crest of a large ocean wave group, as defined by the 'NewWave' formulation. The vector form of the well-known Morison equation provides a good representation of the measured forces. By measuring the force components in the radial and azimuthal directions, we clearly demonstrate that the presence of vigorous force fluctuations at a higher frequency than the orbital motion are associated with vortex shedding that is otherwise masked by the choice of coordinates. We find vortex frequencies comparable with those for flow past fixed bodies and a 'transverse' force magnitude similar to the fixed flow case at the same average speed. Finally, we show that by retaining only an azimuthal (constant) drag coefficient term to represent the fluid loading throughout the wave group orbits, the resolved X- and F-force fluctuations agree well with measured forces. This demonstrates that we can obtain a reasonable estimate of time-varying forces using a single term. It is expected that such a simple force representation will become less effective in shallower fluids and for smaller wave amplitudes relative to body size. © 2009 The Royal Society.