A horizontal cylinder intersecting a free surface is subjected to controlled vertical perturbations, and the consequent vortex formation is characterized by high-image-density particle image velocimetry, which leads to instantaneous patterns of velocity, vorticity, and streamlines. For the limiting case of the stationary cylinder, the near wake does not exhibit rapid formation of organized vortical structures in a manner similar to Kármán vortices. Application of perturbations, however, generates phase-locked vortex formation over a wide range of excitation frequencies, even at relatively low amplitudes, indicating that the near wake in presence of a free surface is convectively, rather than absolutely, unstable. At a sufficiently high value of excitation frequency, the formation of the initial vortex undergoes an abrupt change in timing, which is analogous to that occurring for Kármán vortex formation from a completely submerged cylinder. All of these features of the near wake are interpreted in terms of foci, saddle points, and reattachment points of the streamwise topology.