In navigation, a rhumb line (or loxodrome) is a line crossing all meridians of longitude at the same angle, i.e. a path derived from a defined initial bearing. That is, upon taking an initial bearing, one proceeds along the same bearing, without changing the direction as measured relative to true north.
Rhumb lines in navigation afford certain advantages and drawbacks to those employing their use, which many modernday navigators are conversant with.
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Its use in navigation is directly linked to the style, or projection of certain navigational maps. A rhumb line appears as a straight line on a Mercator projection map.^{[1]}
The name is derived from Old French: "rumb", a line on the chart which intersects all meridians at the same angle.^{[1]} On a plane surface this would be the shortest distance between two points. Over the Earth's surface at low latitudes or over short distances it can be used for plotting a vehicle, aircraft or ship's course.^{[1]} Over longer distances and/or at higher latitudes great circle routes provide the shortest distances. However the inconvenience of having to continuously change bearings while travelling a great circle route makes rhumb line navigation appealing in certain instances ^{[1]}.
The point can be illustrated with an EastWest passage over 90 degrees of longitude along the equator, for which the greatcircle and rhumbline distances are the same at 5400 nautical miles. At 20 degrees North the greatcircle distance is 4997 miles while the rhumbline distance is 5074 miles, about 1½ percent further. But at 60 degrees North the great circle distance is 2485 miles while the rhumbline is 2700 miles, a difference of 8½ percent. A more extreme case is the air route between New York and Hong Kong, for which the rhumbline path is 9700 nautical miles. The greatcircle route over the North Pole is 7000 nautical miles, or 5½ hours less flying time at a typical cruising speed.
Some old maps in the Mercator projection have grids composed of lines of latitude and longitude but also show rhumb lines which are oriented directly towards North, at a right angle from the North, or at some angle from the North which is some simple rational fraction of a right angle. These rhumb lines would be drawn so that they would converge at certain points of the map: lines going in every direction would converge at each of these points. See compass rose. Such maps would necessarily have been in the Mercator projection therefore not all old maps would have been capable of showing rhumbline markings. An example of a 16thcentury Mercator projection with rhumblines can be seen at: http://www.lunacommons.org/luna/servlet/detail/JCB~1~1~34~90004:BythediscouerieofSrFrancisDra
The radial oriented lines on a compass rose are also called rhumbs. The expression "sailing on a rhumb" was used in the 16th–19th centuries to indicate a particular compass heading.^{[1]}
Some Muslim groups in North America take the rhumb line to Mecca (southeastwards) as their qibla (praying direction) instead of the traditional rule of the shortest path, which would give a northeastward direction from the Eastern USA.
Early navigators in the time before the invention of the chronometer used rhumbline courses on long ocean passages, because the ship's latitude could be established accurately by sightings of the Sun or stars but there was no accurate way to determine the longitude. The ship would sail North or South until the latitude of the destination was reached, and the ship would then sail East or West along the rhumbline, maintaining a constant latitude and recording regular estimates of the distance sailed until evidence of land was sighted ^{[2]}.
Unlike a great circle route, which is the shortest distance between two points (for which the bearing of travel is not constant), following a rhumb line requires continual changes in the track of the vehicle to maintain a constant course. In theory this occurs more and more sharply when approaching the North or South pole. The effect of following a rhumb line course on the surface of a globe was first discussed by the Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes in 1537, in his Treatise in Defense of the Marine Chart, with further mathematical development by Thomas Harriot in the 1590s.
Meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude provide special cases of the rhumb line, where their angles of intersection are respectively 0° and 90°. On a NorthSouth passage the rhumbline course coincides with a great circle, as it does on an EastWest passage along the equator.
On a Mercator projection map, a rhumb line is a straight line; a rhumb line can be drawn on such a map between any two points on Earth without going off the edge of the map. But theoretically a loxodrome can extend beyond the right edge of the map, where it then continues at the left edge with the same slope (assuming that the map covers exactly 360 degrees of longitude).
Rhumb lines which cut meridians at oblique angles are loxodromic curves which spiral towards the poles ^{[1]}. On a Mercator projection the North and South poles occur at infinity and are therefore never shown. However the full loxodrome on an infinitely high map would consist of infinitely many line segments between the two edges. On a stereographic projection map, a loxodrome is an equiangular spiral whose center is the North (or South) Pole.
All loxodromes spiral from one pole to the other. Near the poles, they are close to being logarithmic spirals (on a stereographic projection they are exactly, see below), so they wind round each pole an infinite number of times but reach the pole in a finite distance. The poletopole length of a loxodrome is (assuming a perfect sphere) the length of the meridian divided by the cosine of the bearing away from true north. Loxodromes are not defined at the poles.



Let β be the constant bearing from true north of the loxodrome and be the longitude where the loxodrome passes the equator. Let be the longitude of a point on the loxodrome. Under the Mercator projection the loxodrome will be a straight line
with slope . For a point with latitude and longitude the position in the Mercator projection can be expressed as
Then the latitude of the point will be
or in terms of the Gudermannian function gd In cartesian coordinates this can be simplified to
Finding the loxodromes between two given points can be done graphically on a Mercator map, or by solving a nonlinear system of two equations in the two unknowns tan(α) and λ_{0}. There are infinitely many solutions; the shortest one is that which covers the actual longitude difference, i.e. does not make extra revolutions, and does not go "the wrong way around".
The distance between two points, measured along a loxodrome, is simply the absolute value of the secant of the bearing (azimuth) times the northsouth distance (except for circles of latitude for which the distance becomes infinite).
The word "loxodrome" comes from Greek loxos : oblique + dromos : running (from dramein : to run). The word "rhumb" may come from Spanish/Portuguese rumbo (course, direction) and Greek ῥόμβος.^{[3]}
The 1878 edition ofThe Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information describes loxodrome lines as:^{[4]}
Note: this article incorporates text from the
1878 edition of The Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal
Information, a work in the public domain
