The barquentine Mercator was built as a training ship for the Belgian merchant fleet. She was named after Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594), Flemish cartographer. She was designed by G.L. Watson & Co. and built in Leith, Scotland and launched in 1932.
Besides being a training a ship, she was also used, mainly before World War II, for scientific observations, or as ambassador for Belgium on world fairs and in sailing events.
In 1961, she became a floating museum, first in Antwerp and, from 1964, in the marina of Ostend, just in front of the city hall. As of 2019, she remains open to visitors.
Mercator is a composite rigging. The foremast carries square sails, the main mast and the mizzen mast are rigged with fore and aft-sails. Usually the Mercator carried 15 sails with a total surface of about 1600 m². By fair wind she could easily make 13 knots.
Mercator's real career started off in 1934 when the ship sailed from Pitcairn Island, Tahiti, Papeete, to the Marquis Islands and Honolulu for a Belgo-French scientific expedition. This was her seventh cruise and known to be a fairly remarkable one to those preceding World War Two. At the end of this expedition, two of the famous Easter Island statues were donated by the Chilean government, one to France and one to Belgium. Both statues were transported back to Europe on board the Mercator.
In 1936 Ostend's Mercator had the great honor of bringing home the remains of the Flemish missionary and apostle of the lepers, Pater Damiaan, from Molokai island.
On February 21, 1940, Mercator set out for her last cruise before World War 2. She sailed to Rio de Janeiro and afterward arrived in Boma.
From early 1945 to mid 1947, the ship was under the custody of the British Admiralty as a "Submarine Depot Ship". Unfortunately after 1947 the once elegant ship would not be able to put to sea again until January 20, 1951. After her horrible experience in Great Britain, the ship went back to Belgium to receive extensive maintenance work.
In 1951, Mercator returned to service as a training ship and completed 41 voyages, sailing almost all seas. After that she performed quite a few scientific missions. Besides that, she even competed in Tall Ships Races from Torbay-Lisbon (1956), Brest-Canary Islands (1958) and winning line honours in the Oslo-Ostend (1960) race.
All these historic events of the ship would have been impossible without the captains: Captain R. Van de Sande (from 1932 till 1955), Captain R. Ghys (from 1955 till 1960).
In 1964, Mercator became a floating museum in Ostend, moored in front of the City Hall, and since 1996 has been given National Heritage status. On 30 September 2016, Mercator was removed from her usual mooring and dry-docked for an extensive overhaul elsewhere in Ostend harbour. She returned on 29 March 2017 to her usual berth and role as a museum ship.