Abstract Over the last 15 years improved awareness of wave impact induced failures has focused attention on the need to account for the dynamic response of maritime structures to wave impact load. In this work a non-linear model is introduced that allows evaluating the effective design load and the potential sliding of caisson breakwater subject to both pulsating and impulsive wave loads. The caisson dynamics is modelled using a time-step numerical method to solve numerically the equations of motion for a rigid body founded on multiple non-linear springs having both horizontal and vertical stiffness. The model is first shown to correctly describe the dynamics of caisson breakwaters subject to wave attack, including nonlinear features of wave–structure–soil interaction. Predictions of sliding distances by the new method are then compared with measurements from physical model tests, showing very good agreement with observations. The model succeeds in describing the physics that stands behind the process and is fast, accurate and flexible enough to be suitable for performance design of caisson breakwaters.